a quarterly review of dance


“I am, first of all, a woman”
a conversation with Isabelle Guérin

Winter 2001
by Marc Haegeman
© 2001

Isabelle Guérin is one of the brightest gems of the Paris Opéra Ballet. Widely admired for her versatility, her dramatic gifts, her passionate, yet subtle portrayals, her effortless technique, Isabelle Guérin is a ballerina whose artistry and command continues to surprise, and who stubbornly resists labeling. Even after fifteen years at the top of this admirable company there is no doubt that this ballerina still has plenty to say.

Following her training at the Conservatoire de Paris and the Ecole de Danse de l’Opéra, Isabelle Guérin joined the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1978. Quickly conquering the ranks of the company’s hierarchy, her first soloist roles included Carabosse in Rosella Hightower’s Sleeping Beauty, Kitri in Nureyev’s Don Quixote, and Myrtha in Giselle. At the end of her performance as Odette-Odile in Bourmeister’s Swan Lake on November 2, 1985 she was nominated étoile by Rudolf Nureyev.

Today the scope of her repertory perfectly mirrors the diversity and flexibility of the Parisian company, ranging from the great nineteenth century classics via Balanchine, Robbins, Tudor, and Lifar, to contemporary creations by Tharp, Forsythe, and Preljocaj. Guérin created at the Opéra among others the role of Nikiya in Nureyev’s La Bayadère, Forsythe’s In The Middle Somewhat Elevated, and Preljocaj’s Le Parc. She has been a guest artist with several companies, most notably New York City Ballet, Royal Ballet, National Ballet of Finland, Kirov and Bolshoi Ballet.

In her final season at the Paris Opéra (the merciless rules obligate female étoiles to retire at forty) and the day after her performance in the opening night of Balanchine’s Jewels at the Garnier, Ms Guérin looks back on her career, reminiscing about her decisive encounter with Rudolf Nureyev, talking with passion about her art and, even at this crucial moment in her life, never hiding her love for the Paris Opéra.

Paris, Opéra Garnier -- 20 December 2000

DanceView: Isabelle Guérin, what are the qualities of the Paris Opéra Ballet? What distinguishes this company from the other major ballet companies?

ISABELLE GUÉRIN: We all come from the same school, namely the “Ecole de danse de l’Opéra”, or its parallel institution the “Conservatoire de Paris”, where I studied. Anybody who joins this company has to pass through a selection, on physical and dancing qualities, which accounts for the strength of our corps de ballet.

There are the annual competitions that keep the level high. And what moreover distinguishes this company is that all choreographers, all styles of dancing are present. There is a wide scope of works, really something for everybody. This also explains the diversity of the étoiles. In my view every étoile in this company is different, each has his or her own repertory, what makes it extra interesting.

DV:  Can you describe the main characteristics of the French School?

GUÉRIN: In our dance training we receive, before all, a base, meaning the bare essence, a basic technique, permitting us later to develop toward different styles with ease, be it Balanchine, Nureyev, Robbins, or Kylian, We possess a very strong base from where we can mould ourselves to the demands of different choreographers or styles.

There is a purity in it. It’s not without style of course -- it’s classy, with beautiful port de bras and everything -- but it remains really close to school, it’s almost like in the manuals we had at school. When you take the American dancers, for instance, I consider their schooling already more the acquirement of a style – the Balanchinian style.

What’s interesting here is that we start with this School, l’Ecole de l’Opéra. It makes our bodies very malleable, we are pure and finally we are ready to adapt to various styles or choreographers.

DV:  Going back to the very beginning, why and how did you choose a ballet career?

GUÉRIN: Really by coincidence. As many little girls do on Sundays, I took dancing lessons in my town. My sister was taking lessons as well and when I arrived at the required age, I decided to follow her example. It was not a young girl’s dream at all. There are no artists in my family. After a while my teacher wanted me to present myself at the Ecole de Danse de l’Opéra, but I always refused. I didn’t want to become a ballerina as I couldn’t imagine that you could make a living of it. I had no idea what it meant. Finally, my teacher made me participate in some small competitions, where I always obtained excellent results. What really got me hooked were the galas these small schools organize at the end of the year. One can dance a little butterfly or a flower, and I began to like the idea that I could do some theatre, wear a costume and so on. That I really fancied. When I finally decided to continue with it, I was too old for the Ecole de Danse (I was fourteen), so I went to the Conservatoire. But it was all a coincidence. If there wouldn’t have been a dance school in my hometown, it would never have happened.

DV: Or without your sister you probably would never have become a ballerina?

GUÉRIN: Absolutely… and my sister never made it as a dancer.

DV:  What were the most memorable moments in your career?

GUÉRIN: Since I was born in a small town, to enter the Conservatoire was a great moment. All of the sudden I somehow felt close to the Opéra. Receiving First Prize at the Conservatoire was a great moment as well, followed by my admission to the Ecole de Danse -- which is not a required step. Then there were the competitions, the promotions, and finally of course my encounter with Rudolf Nureyev.

DV: And how about your nomination as ‘danseuse-étoile’?

GUÉRIN: Of course, especially when it is Nureyev himself who nominates you on the stage of the Opéra at the end of the performance of Swan Lake. That’s an emotional moment. But already before that, the work with Nureyev, all the ballets he introduced me to, the hours in the studio with him. Unforgettable moments.

DV: Who was your teacher at the Conservatoire?

GUÉRIN: Christiane Vaussard. A wonderful teacher. She seldom gave any compliments. Rather hard in a way, but hard because she wanted to obtain something. She strove for perfection, she wanted quality, honesty. Quite like Nureyev. Not as a character, of course. For that Rudolf was really a unique case.

DV: Can you tell me something more about Rudolf Nureyev?

GUÉRIN: It’s hard to talk about him. It’s hard to explain to people, because we only retain good memories, which is great, but he was really like a wild animal.

The days were very different, although he was always magnificent, even in his bouts of anger. One day everything worked, the next day he was hateful. You could love him as you could hate him.

I loved him a lot, I appreciated him. I consider it my good fortune I could follow his work and in fact I, too, liked this confrontation, which he always needed. Even when everything was alright, he had to find the weak spot in order to have a quarrel. At the same time it was interesting.

He didn’t make any compliments either. He pushed you to believe in yourself, to love work, to be honest with yourself, to be sincere, never to cheat. A smile of Mr. Nureyev at the end of a performance because he was pleased with you, was worth millions. Only for that I say: “Thank you!”

DV: I remember Elisabeth Platel used exactly the same words: “never to cheat”

GUÉRIN: Never. Yes, honesty, no swank, no gimmicks or cheap tricks. Just purity, quality, the school.

For the generation of étoiles Nureyev worked with and shaped, believe me, he is still present. He is no longer here, but in the studios his voice is still resounding. Also in his ballets. Once you prepared a ballet with him, you never forgot it. His corrections are imprinted in our minds. It’s unforgettable. It was so strong and it felt so right. He has been feeding us for all these years, which allows us to be ourselves now. When he left the Opéra, we opened up. It’s true that we were “children of Nureyev” as long as he was here, and we sort of danced for him, yet once he had left we were still his children, but with a different personality. And that’s really wonderful. Everything we learned from him is still there. I still wouldn’t be able to cheat, because I feel that somewhere he is watching me. I could never walk on the stage and do something swanky or cheap, just to get an ovation from the public, yet at the same time I am myself.

DV: Nureyev’s grip on the company wasn’t too stifling as is sometimes suggested?

GUÉRIN: Not at all. The best proof is that we are still here.

There was something magic about it. The moment he entered the studio, his presence was electrifying. When he showed something, you had to believe him. One may discuss his choreographies, but the man himself, what he gave to the dancers and what he did for the company, that’s beyond any reproach for me.

DV: What do you think of Nureyev’s choreographies, his versions of the great classics?

GUÉRIN: In any case he made us like them. The work we did for his ballets ensured that we liked them.

DV: You danced the role of Nikiya at the premiere of his final creation La Bayadère.

GUÉRIN: It was a difficult moment for him and what really counted for me is that I wanted to give all of myself to please him. We knew the end was near and we wanted to finish this ballet. We, the étoiles who danced the premiere, we wanted him to be proud of us. After all we were his étoiles, the people he worked with, he had named and he believed in. To make him happy was really my primary concern.

DV: What are your favourite ballets and who are your favourite choreographers?

GUÉRIN: Now I prefer theatrical ballets like Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, Manon, also L’arlésienne or Notre-Dame de Paris. Ballets that tell a story. I feel very close to a ballet like Manon, partly because it’s new for me, but surely also because it’s very theatrical.

As for choreographers, there are many I like and it’s always a bit unjust to pick some out. I particularly like Robbins. I find all his ballets are small jewels, they have poetry, musicality, atmosphere. Also people like Forsythe, Tharp, Preljocaj, who created Le Parc for me. In fact all choreographers whom I was able to meet and to work with. When you meet them something is bound to happen.

DV: Indeed very different styles…

GUÉRIN: I love to be different. That’s were the schooling comes in: this base I was referring to, which allows me now to absorb these different choreographers. I like to dance Forsythe and the next day La Bayadère, and a third day In the Night by Robbins, and so on. I wouldn’t want to be catalogued as a certain type of dancer. For a long time I had the image of being a technician. And of course I worked very hard on my technique, because it’s important to feel free and to obtain from your body what you want. Working hard on your technique permits you to be free later. But to be a versatile dancer, that’s what I like.

DV: Yesterday you danced in the opening night of Balanchine’s Jewels.

GUÉRIN: Balanchine is a choreographer I wish I could have met. He loved women and he knew how to value them. I prefer choreographers who create for “the” woman, and not just for the “dancer”. I don’t like to be called a “danseuse”, I feel like, and I am first of all, a woman. The work between the choreographer and the woman that’s what matters. I don’t want to be an object, I am a person, not a dancer.

DV: How do you approach a nineteenth-century role like Giselle and how do you make this ballet acceptable for today’s audiences?

GUÉRIN: It’s true that one often hears that ballets like Giselle are old-fashioned. Personally, I don’t think so, because we give these roles new life with our physical appearances and dancing styles, which are different from a hundred years ago. It’s no use trying to imitate how it was done in the old days or to copy someone else. Like I said, I have to be myself. How would I react in this certain situation, what would I do if I was suffering and so on. Basically one has to be sincere and honest. To be yourself. I become Giselle, but at the same time I am myself. In the end all the emotions one lives through in a ballet often are emotions one encounters in daily life. My daily life helps to relive the roles.

DV: I remember your first Manon, where you were visibly moved by the role, even when the curtain calls had begun.

GUÉRIN: When I enter inside a character it takes time to get out of it again. I like to live through these strong moments on stage. I don’t want to do things half-hearted. When I give myself, I give myself a hundred percent.

When I danced Le Parc many people asked me how I was able to handle the love scene with all these eyes focused on me. I replied it was a logical issue, because it was part of the ballet. And it’s a love story that can happen in everyday life. Even if I have a certain timidity in daily life, when I am on stage there is almost none and I give myself totally. If there is a complicity with the choreographer, if I believe in his work–if not, I refuse--but if I can experience it, I think I can go very far.

It’s true that choreographers are often daunted to work with étoiles of the Paris Opéra. This status of being an étoile somehow scares people. That’s a shame, because when I enter a studio I am there for the work and the crown is so to speak left at the door. For instance with William Forsythe, who is a good friend, it’s like the work of a sculptor. When there is a chemistry, a feeling, and when nothing is forced, I am really prepared to go very far.

I like to make people laugh, as when I danced the sister in Cinderella, but I also like to make them cry.

DV: When you look back at the time you started out here, do you see any important changes in the Paris Opéra since then?

GUÉRIN: I’m not going to say much about this. Just that we have been marked by Nureyev’s era. This stamp can not be removed. Impossible. It’s true that we were ready and willing to do everything to please this man. It’s hard to talk about the situation now, because I was marked by Nureyev and I cannot forget it. Even now I still work and dance for him. It’s a profound mark and it’s difficult to talk about what came after it. And I am proud of it. I am very happy to have known these years and proud to have been nominated étoile by him.

DV: One often hears that classical ballet has no future…Do you agree?

GUÉRIN: That’s wrong. The theatres are sold out. A ballet like Swan Lake will always make people dream. They are not old-fashioned. On the contrary, we update these ballets by our modernism and by the way we see them. Dancers of today have different bodies and techniques, a different approach. In the end, it’s our way which will always keep these ballets alive. They are continually reinterpreted.

DV: Do you think it’s a good idea to try to reconstruct the original stagings of the ballets, like we had the recent example of Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty by the Maryinsky Theatre?

GUÉRIN: No, that’s going too far. That’s in my opinion precisely what can give a bad, an old-fashioned impression of these ballets. “Modernize” (between brackets) them a little, in the sense of change the costumes, the scenery, the production even. After all, mode and tastes develop.

When you compare my interpretation of Giselle with that of Yvette Chauviré, there’s a world of difference. And yet, it was Ms Chauviré -- a woman I adore -- who taught me the role. When I first entered the studio I feared she would teach me the role as in the old days, which wouldn’t suit my physical appearance. But to my surprise she was so modern! She did Giselle for me, but she did it the way it would be done today: none of that old-fashioned pantomime or anything. She was extraordinary. And so real. I think we live the emotions of our time and we put them in our ballets, and that is what modernizes them, what keeps them fresh.

DV: This is your final season with the Paris Opéra Ballet. How do you feel about this?

GUÉRIN: Well, needless to say, I am prepared for it. Yet, I find it is a shame that in this company you have to retire at forty. To be penalized because of your age and not because of what you are worth on stage, is in my view regrettable. In other companies when you reach the age of forty you are praised for your maturity, your acting abilities, and so on. Here you are considered to be old. That’s hard to take, because I don’t feel old. I feel in splendid form. I became a mother recently. I’m happy, I have a lot to give, but because of my age it’s “Goodbye!” That’s a pity. Because after all it’s not a matter of age. Even when I perfectly realize that new generations are following, I feel we still have a lot to say at our age. OK, it’s my last season, I live now from day to day, nothing to do about it, but it does have a ridiculous aspect. We are considering here an art and we have other things to say than the youngsters, because they lack experience. But… it’s the law.

DV: You won’t stop dancing altogether, I suppose ?

GUÉRIN: No, we’ll see. Like I said I live a bit from day to day. After my contract in Paris is finished I will be going to the USA. I don’t have any definite engagements yet, I’d like to wait a little. It’s a certain freedom, even if I never felt like a prisoner here at the Opéra. But it’s a turning point in my life, not only in my career, also in my life. And I admit it’s hard to take. But there is also my life, my husband and little girl. And that’s wonderful too.

I don’t have any ideas of becoming a teacher or so. I am before everything else a dancer-performer. I like to coach young people, in whom I believe, and I understand the importance of passing on what you know to them, as I myself loved to be coached by Nureyev. But to think of it as a full-time job, no, not really. It’s true that I found much pleasure in transmitting a ballet like Don Quixote, which I no longer dance myself, in the studio. Yet in the end I prefer to be on stage, to perform, to encounter choreographers, to work in the studio, to create something together, that’s what I really like.

DV: What are your main interests besides ballet?

I like traveling. My husband is American, so I travel a lot. When I don’t dance I am just a “normal” woman, meaning I like to meet my friends, to go on holidays, and so on. I like to live a daily life, to be at home, to cook, to go shopping, or just do nothing, even though that is rather difficult now with my baby-daughter. Dancing, of course, but there is also a life next to it. And it’s precisely that life which allows me to be what I am as a dancer. If I wouldn’t have a life besides ballet, I would be empty on stage. I need these emotions from daily life in ballet.

DV: You danced with several other companies. Didn’t you ever consider leaving the Paris Opéra?

GUÉRIN: No. Of course, I could have, but a career as étoile of the Paris Opéra Ballet is a very difficult one. One often hears that it takes a lot of courage to leave this House. I would rather say: no, it takes a lot of courage to stay. There is a continuous competition, new generations are arriving, the level is very high, the corps de ballet won’t make life easy for you, in the sense that you have to give them a reason to be there. After all these people perform every night, so they need to find interest in being there. And this concerns me as well. I want them to live my story, together with me. Ever since I became an étoile there wasn’t a single performance where I felt that the corps de ballet wasn’t present in my story. There didn’t pass one evening where I wasn’t interested in the supporting cast. For me it is all-important that they become part of my story, because I don’t want to be alone on the stage. And I am very grateful for that, because I lived very emotional moments with them.

I didn’t want to leave the Paris Opéra, also like I said because we are lucky to be able to work with all these different choreographers and we do have soloists and a corps de ballet of the highest level. I really need to have good people around me.

There is this sparkle at the Opéra. Needless to say that there are quarrels, but that’s unavoidable, it’s everywhere and that’s what accounts for this sparkle. Although you cannot expect to like 150 people, I think there is a good spirit in this company. We have this wonderful theatre, even when compared with all the other great theatres of the world. This theatre is really amazing: its walls, its atmosphere -- it’s magic, it’s unique.

It was important that I could guest with other companies where I could meet other dancers, partners, choreographers (for instance at new York City Ballet I could work with Robbins). I love to enrich myself, to discover, to learn (even as étoile I still like to learn) and to return with new experiences, that refrain from falling into routine, and eventually to appreciate my home company even more.

DV: Finally, to summarize, what makes an étoile?

GUÉRIN: A lot of work. A mentality. Because before becoming étoile there are lots of ups and downs, many insecurities. And once you became it, you don’t want to disappoint. Also, to be honest with yourself, to be sincere, to give yourself a hundred percent every night, for yourself, for the corps de ballet, and for the public.

The pleasure of dancing and the love of dancing. The pleasure of being on stage and the pleasure to dance what you have to dance. To be generous. Generosity: to offer, to give, to give yourself.

The rapport with your partners, the corps de ballet, the public. But the most important quality is definitely the love of work, to be really honest and sincere, to be yourself. To remain modest… even if you are wearing a tiara.






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