Life Lessons: Sylvie Guillem
The French ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem CBE was a member of the Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Ballet in London before branching out into contemporary dance. She shared her wisdom with us when she was in Abu Dhabi performing at the Abu Dhabi Festival.
1. Discipline comes from within. I learnt that from gymnastics. It was a game, playing around, always related to pleasure. But from that I got discipline; that became part of it. If no one imposes it on you it does not feel like discipline. Dancing was different, I had to do it the way it was; there was not much open-mindedness. If I were teaching children now, I would tell them that discipline has to come from them and not from me.
2. Charm is a gift. You can’t learn charm, no one can teach you that. When you have it naturally, use it. It is something that my first mentor, Rudolf Nureyev, had so much of, and everyone was in love with him. His character was so striking; he imposed himself everywhere he went. It was incredible seeing the effect he had on people – he had such presence. And that is charm.
3. You have to make your own choices. Don’t just do things because others tell you to. If someone else has told you to do something, it is no longer a choice. You need to find the “why” yourself. Responsibility enhances your performance. If other people are making all the decisions, then where is your input?
4. Don’t be put off by youth; let them try. I was lucky enough to be an étoile (principal dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet) when I was 19, and so I could make mistakes and take responsibility early on. A lot of the time you have to wait to gain experience but by the time you have waited you might have run out of time. When you are young is when you are most excited and you have the conviction to show who you are.
5. Make standing up for what you believe a way of living. I try to do it in a decent way, with honesty and respect. I don’t like too many compromises. Although in the world of classical dance someone who says “non” is a revolutionary. But I have learnt to be a little more diplomatic with age.
As told to Helena Frith Powell
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019