It’s the end of an era, but this year will see the legendary Sylvie Guillem dancing at the International Festival and retiring at the top of her game.

Each night that Sylvie Guillem performs Life in Progress is like a closing night. As she takes her farewell tour around the world, audiences arrive to say goodbye. In Italy, people crammed their children into the boxes of the theatre. At Sadler’s Wells, London, they rose to their feet in a standing ovation at the interval. Everywhere, from Athens to Lyon, from Moscow to Sydney, the weight of emotion is intense.

On stage, bowing with a broad grin on her face, Guillem cannot fail to feel it. “In a way I feel that each night is getting me ready for the moment when it all ends,” she says. “But I cannot think about it. All I am concentrating on at the moment is each performance. I just want each night to be the best it can.”

Her very last moments on stage as a dancer will come in Japan in December. Until then, her diary is packed with engagements, and the greatest dancer of her generation is trying not to look ahead. “I am not frightened of being without dancing because I know I can do that. I know I can spend time not performing, because I have done that. But what I don’t know is how I will feel when I haven’t got this to look forward to, when there is nothing coming up.”

However, she has absolutely no regrets about deciding – “quite suddenly” – to quit at the end of this year, at the age of 50. “Time is time, age is age, when you finish a book you don’t need to read it again,” she says. “That’s it, that’s the story. I have made it as long and as beautiful as I could. Now I want to end it beautifully.”

That uncompromising instinct to go out at the top is as much a part of her as those sharp feet and legs that stretch– still – with ease past her ear. She has never hung around once she felt a story was over. She has been dancing now for 39 years, first finding fame as the youngest ever étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet (promoted by Rudolf Nureyev at the age of 19), then coming to Britain to dance with the Royal Ballet as principal guest artist from 1989 until 2007. In 2006 she became an associate artist at Sadler’s Wells and launched the last great flowering of her career, as a contemporary dancer, commissioning and creating works.

Her final programme contains pieces by the choreographers to whom she has been closest: William Forsythe, Mats Ek, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan. It is poignant, witty and full of joy. “It has been a pleasure,” she says. “The audiences have always been warm, and when I stop at the end of the year I will really miss them.” So she’s enjoying each night, and not thinking of the end.

“I know I will have to stop and breathe the new air,” she says. “I will have to learn to see life differently.”

Where & When
Life in Progress, Festival Theatre, 8-10 August, 7.30pm, from £14, Tel. 0131 473 2000
Book

Words: Sarah Crompton   Photography: Bill Cooper

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