Guillem was the top-ranking female dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet from 1984 to 1989, before becoming a principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet in London. She has performed contemporary dance as an Associate Artist of London's Sadler's Wells Theatre. Her most notable performances have included those in Giselle and in Rudolf Nureyev's stagings of Swan Lake and Don Quixote. In November 2014, she announced her retirement from the stage in 2015.
In 1977 at age 11, she began training at the Paris Opera Ballet School where Claude Bessy, then director of the school, immediately noticed her exceptional capacities and potential, and in 1981 at age 16, she joined the company's corps de ballet. Initially she hated dancing, preferring gymnastics, but after taking part in her show she found that she loved performing.
In 1983 Guillem won the gold medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition, which later in the year earned her her first solo role, dancing the Queen of the Dryads in Rudolf Nureyev's staging of Don Quixote. In December 1984, after her performance in Nureyev's Swan Lake, she became the Paris Opera Ballet's youngest-ever étoile, the company's top-ranking female dancer. In 1987 she performed the lead role in William Forsythe's contemporary ballet In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated with one of her favourite partners, Laurent Hilaire.
In 1988 she was given the title role in a production of Giselle staged by the Royal Ballet to celebrate Nureyev's 50th birthday. Her performance was a success, and in the following year she left Paris for London, to become a freelance performer and one of the Royal Ballet's principal guest artists. Her desire to work independently from a company gained her the nickname "Mademoiselle Non". In 1995 Guillem created the dance television program, Evidentia, which won several international awards. In 1998 she staged her own version of Giselle for the Finnish National Ballet, and in 2001 restaged the ballet for La Scala Ballet in Milan.
In 2001 she became the first winner of the Nijinsky Prize for the world's best ballerina, although in her acceptance speech she criticised the "supermarket culture" of such awards. In the same year, she controversially appeared nude and without make-up in a photo-shoot for French Vogue. In 2003 she directed the central section of a Nureyev tribute program, but was criticised for having the dancers perform in front of a giant projected backdrop of Nureyev, which the audience found distracting. By 2006 she had moved from ballet to contemporary dance, working with such performers as Akram Khan as an Associate Artist of the Sadler's Wells Theatre in London, England.
In March 2015 Guillem embarked on an international farewell tour titled Life in Progress, featuring works by Khan, Russell Maliphant, Mats Ek and Forsythe. The tour concluded in Japan, and she gave her final performance live on Japanese television on 31 December 2015, performing Maurice Béjart's Boléro as the clock counted down to midnight.
Guillem's repertoire includes Giselle (Giselle), Swan Lake (Odette/Odile), Don Quixote (Kitri), In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, Romeo and Juliet (Juliet), The Sleeping Beauty (Aurora), Boléro, Cinderella, Notre-Dame de Paris, Raymonda, La Bayadère (Nikiya and Gamzatti), Fall River Legend, Prince of the Pagodas (Princess Rose), Hermann Schmermann, Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien, and Sacred Monsters (with Akram Khan).
As of 2006, Guillem was in a long-term relationship with photographer Gilles Tapie. She is a supporter of environmental group Sea Shepherd. She is a total vegetarian, saying, "I do not want any animal to die for me".
Guillem has received numerous decorations during her career.
- 1983 : Gold medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition
- 1984 : Prix du Cercle Carpeaux (Paris)
- 1988 : Andersen Prize (Copenhagen), Grand Prix national de danse (Paris), Commandeur of the Arts et Lettres (Paris)
- 1989 : Grand Prix Pavlova
- 1993 : Médaille de Vermeil de la Ville de Paris
- 1994 : Prix Benois de la Danse
- 1994 : Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur
- 1999 : Officier of the Ordre national du Mérite
- 2000 : Gente Dame of honor of the Hospitaliers de Pomerol
- 2001 : Prix Nijinski
- 2003 : Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire
- 2009 : Officier of the Légion d'honneur
- 2012 : Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, from the Biennale Danza of Venice
- 2015 : Praemium Imperiale, Tokyo
- 2016 : Critics' Circle National Dance Award : De Valois Award for outstanding achievements
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- Sylvie Guillem Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement