Harriet Shapiro
July 28, 1986 12:00 PM

She came. She danced. She conquered. Or at least it all seemed as easy as one-two-three when Sylvie Guillem, 21-year-old star ballerina of the Paris Opéra Ballet, made her American dance debut. The occasion was the first U.S. visit since 1948 of the Paris Opéra Ballet troupe. Now directed by Rudolf Nureyev, its two-city, three-week tour began this month with a gala at New York’s Lincoln Center. It hardly mattered that Nureyev himself, now 48, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, 38, were also dancing on opening night. It was Guillem (pronounced Gee Em) who seemed to soak up every lumen of light as she leapt and spun through the pas de deux from Le Corsaire with partner Patrick Dupond. “Incredible,” murmured onlookers as the long-limbed ballerina thrust her right leg heavenward in the vertical 180-degree extension that has become her signature stroke.

Guillem’s rise to stardom has been almost as quick as her kick. She is the youngest étoile (in French, star dancer) of the 161-member company. At 5’7″, she is also one of its tallest. It was Nureyev who two years ago plucked her out of the corps and, skipping her over the next four ranks, anointed her étoile. “She has heavenly proportions,” he raves of his protégée, “superb muscles, musicality and good will. And she glows onstage.”

Nureyev is not the only power in the dance world to have been smitten. Even as a petit rat, or young dancer, she caught the eye of the late George Balanchine, who offered to take her, at 15, into his own company if the Paris Opéra did not want her. In 1983, Guillem danced away with the gold medal at the prestigious ballet competition in Varna, Bulgaria, and more recently, American and European choreographers have been busily wooing her. Early this year Maurice Béjart created a role in Arepo (that’s opera spelled backwards), a modern, five-part ballet, just for her. Guillem speaks simply when she talks about her success. “Dancing pleases me,” she says. “I hope I transmit that to others.”

Ballet, however, was the farthest thing from Guillem’s mind when she was a young girl growing up in the blue-collar Paris suburb of Le Blanc-Mesnil. Her real love was gymnastics. “It came naturally. I liked to move, so I moved,” says Guillem, who studied with her mother, an instructor in the local sports club. Preparing to compete in the 1980 Olympics, she took classes as part of her training three times a week at the Paris Opéra School. There she impressed the school directress, former prima ballerina Claude Bessy, who persuaded Guillem to switch to ballet. “I know that gymnastics wouldn’t last that long,” Sylvie says. “After 18 it’s over. I didn’t hesitate.”

Hard work and new demands on her body overcame her only fault in the first year, overdeveloped shoulders from gymnastics. Later, a tough skin would come in handy. In December 1984, after a dress rehearsal for Guillem’s first lead performance in Swan Lake, she found herself facing tough criticism from Bessy. Her work had been less than her best, said Bessy, leaving Guillem with major worries just 24 hours before her debut. The following afternoon Guillem played and replayed a video of her flawed rehearsal. Recalls Bessy: “To accept that someone tells you you’re not good the night before your premiere is very hard. She knew how to accept my criticism. The difference in her dancing the next night was like night and day.” After her performance that night, Nureyev walked onstage and named her étoile,” his first such appointment since taking charge.

A star’s work schedule has left Guillem with little time offstage for Manuel Legris, 22, a fellow dancer in the company with whom she shares an apartment in Paris. Her heady billing, she admits, left her with a bad case of stage fright before her U.S. performances in New York and Washington, D.C. She needn’t have fretted; now it’s the Paris Opéra management that’s biting its nails about their star. “I’m afraid we will lose her to America,” says director general Jean-Philippe Saint-Geours. “She’s too good not to be stolen away.”

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