Sylvie Guillem Talks About Marguerite and Armand
with Ismene Brown
I interviewed the Royal Ballet’s principal guest artist Sylvie Guillem about the reviving of Ashton’s ‘Marguerite and Armand’ at in February 2000, and reproduce a slightly edited transcript below. My article based on this interview appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday February 26 2000.
'Marguerite and Armand' was the first new ballet made for Rudolf Nureyev after his defection, and it was to be the only Ashton one. Nureyev chafed against this his whole life, adoring Ashton and being slightly frightened of him—deeply envying those whom Ashton preferred to create on, such as Anthony Dowell. The ballet’s gestation seethed with emotions. Ashton had been thinking about a M&A ballet for Fonteyn after seeing Vivien Leigh in Dumas's play in 1961, and adoring Garbo's film 'Camille' (he had also co-directed Verdi's opera 'La Traviata' at Covent Garden in 1948, starring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf). Stumped for the music at first, he heard the Liszt sonata on the radio, and was happy to find out that Marie Duplessis (the real courtesan on whom Dumas based his character) had had an affair with Liszt: "I found this fascinating," Ashton said, "I often wondered whether she could have inspired this very piece".
The creation of the ballet took on a strange, highly emotional momentum. Ashton’s approach boiled down the book and play into “a kind of tabloid, a pillule... but I would like it to be strong enough to kill”. Young Nureyev, nervous and arrogant, seemed - to Ashton’s jealous annoyance—to consume and revitalise the now sedate Fonteyn, making her a better dancer and a more rhapsodic performer. Meanwhile Michael Somes, Fonteyn’s established partner, was also jealous at being pushed aside by this young Russian, and particularly at being asked to play his father. Above all the ballet appeared to radiate a strange insight into the discovery by the two new partners of each other. The premiere in spring '63 was attended by “enough publicity to win a general election”. David Vaughan, Ashton’s biographer, notes that “It was often said that Ashton wanted no one else to dance it, but this is untrue—in fact in early rehearsals Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable were understudies.”
Sylvie Guillem: I looked at the video once and didn’t want to look at any more, because I did not want to learn it from Margot and Rudolf, I wanted to learn it from Marguerite and Armand. Rudolf showed me the piece once at his place, a long time ago—he was very pleased to show it to me. When I knew that I was going to do it, I read the book, I read the play, I tried to take in not only the character, the play and the writer, but also the time when it was placed. It is important to get the morals of this time, of this society, to place the character—why she reacts like that, why he reacts like that, why she must make this sacrifice of love. That’s how I tried to figure out who Marguerite was—and she is really Marie Duplessis. [...] Dumas’s play and the novel are different: she dies alone in the novel, and in the play he comes back in the end. I think Sir Ashton based it on the play. Well, she must die in his arms! It works in the theatre. There are rules in the theatre and rules in the novel. It’s nice to see how Dumas tried to concentrate it and change it for the play, where in the novel he took longer, gave more details, more characters. No, I had real pleasure in reading and studying it.
IB: When was it first suggested to you? You told me before you thought it might not work.
SG: They asked me a long time ago, and I had only seen the film of it, and it was such a strong image of Margot and Rudolf that I thought, I can’t, it’s too soon after their deaths [1991 and 1993], people won’t appreciate it, and I am too young—I had this idea she must be older. So I said, no, I don’t want it, it is not the right moment, I don’t know if there will be a right moment. Then they asked me again, and I said no again. And the third time was the right time. I thought, why not? And then I discovered it was much better to have more information about the piece than just to rely on what you have heard. You research it, and then you can make a wiser decision. And maybe in fact I WAS too young then- there is a time for everything. Strangely enough, I didn’t have too much problem to make the decision the last time they asked me.
IB: What about the burden of the Fonteyn persona that you are following?
SG: Oh, I’m not going to do anything about it. I can’t stop anything and I can’t avoid it. People will be against, some of them, and what do you do? I only decided one thing, that I would not look at the video any more, because Margot was wonderful in it. She had her way of doing it—and I was going to listen more to Marguerite. I am an interpreter and this is a ballet. They say this ballet was done only for them and no one else, and it’s not true... You know, if people really want to forbid something they know how to do it. There are foundations and lawyers, and if you want to stop a ballet being performed, it stops. Well, I don’t care about that, I am very pleased to do this ballet and the more I do it the more I enjoy it.
IB: Do you find any links between Marguerite and Natalia Petrovna [of 'A Month in the Country', a role Guillem has often performed] or even Manon [by MacMillan, a ballet Guillem danced that season immediately after the M&A programme]?
SG: Yes. It’s strange that you are talking about Manon, because in the novel Armand gives Marguerite a book, and the book is ‘Manon Lescaut’. So all through the novel Manon is always there, like something Marguerite should keep in mind if she doesn’t want to be like this, like a warning. But it is Armand who gave it to her.
[...] Marguerite has more conscience about what she does and why she does it. Manon has no idea. Manon is a real libertine, with no morals at all—which means not immoral but amoral. But Marguerite, it seems, as you start to know it a little bit, that she knows from the beginning what’s going to happen to her. It’s a real sacrifice. First because she is already sick, and she knows she is going to die from it—it’s a kind of suicide, for her. Before the end, the only happiness that she has she knows will not last. [...] What is incredible is that she doesn’t regret anything —she just is resigned to her fate.
IB: How about the Ashton choreography? How does it suit you, since you are such a big-scale dancer, and the Margot signature was delicate and quite polite?
SG: I think it‘s freer than 'Month in the Country'. I would say I recognise Ashton’s style more in 'Month' than in 'Marguerite and Armand'. Of course, it’s not like big technique and flying everywhere, but I take it, like Manon, more from the character than from the dance technique. And I like it, I find it very beautiful, and I don’t feel stuck in the choreography... it’s not easy to do, huh? It looks like nothing, because it is all partnering. But there are tricky things. So you have first to make it work [physically] and then to let yourself go, which is hard for your partner.
IB: Do you find the music helpful?
SG: Yes, but it’s quite difficult music, because it’s really melodic at one point, and then in the middle of a step it changes. It’s strange music, and I have learned to like it very much. At the beginning when I saw the video I thought it’s a shame the music is not much of a support; but when you hear it and work with it, you find the support. It’s nice, the difference between the easy-to-get and the not-quite-easy. Because you are not comfortable all the time in it, you keep having to listen to it.
IB: You say Rudolf loved this ballet, and showed you the film.
SG: He was like a kid in front of something that he was dreaming about. He was SO happy to show it to me, and to see it again. I don’t know why he did. Because he was not talking too much in it—he was like THIS in front of the TV [she hunches up like a child concentrating]. I was still in the Paris Opera so it was maybe 87, 88.
IB: Why do you think he loved it so much?
SG: Because of Margot and because of Sir Ashton. Because it was for him and for her, for both of them—and by someone he really admired.
IB: Did you understand how he felt about Margot?
SG: Yeah. Well, you understand the way you understand when you are the age I was then. But he had so much admiration when he was talking about her. He was the one who introduced me to her. He ABSOLUTELY wanted me to meet her. He came to pick me up and introduce me, and you could feel that he had SUCH a respect for her. What do you want to call it—admiration, respect. It was like being back to a little kid in front of this woman.
IB: That’s not what comes over in the video, he seems to be forcing her to feel the way he feels, like putting a match to a spark.
SG: They are telling a part of their story on that video, and Sir Ashton by choosing an older Marguerite and a younger Armand, he knew that he was doing a Marguerite and Armand that could really have been called something else. Because it was a little bit their story. I don’t know anything about it, you know, but knowing Rudolf, he was someone who could be so respectful and so in love with whoever, but at the same time he could not help to be himself, to be instinctive and impulsive. And, well, Armand is destroying Marguerite. She already took a decision to kill herself because she has no future. But he is killing her by having no understanding. You can see he is young in his mind, in his reaction, in his passion, in his misunderstanding of the situation. He couldn’t imagine that she is going back to her life to save him. It didn’t come into his mind.
IB: When Rudolf showed you the film, you don’t know why he did it? Was it because it meant a lot to him, or a sense that one day you might dance this ballet?
SG: No, I think it was important to him, this experience with Margot and Sir Ashton. It’s not only a stage performance that was recorded—I think it was a very important moment in his life. I don’t know if he was thinking about anyone else doing it. I think he didn’t care. I’m pretty sure of that, though I wouldn’t speak for him. It would not have mattered to him.
IB: I know he desperately wanted other Ashton ballets for himself, but Ashton was reluctant.
SG: I know that he would have loved to have had ‘Ondine’ in Paris, and I was sent as a messenger by him to Sir Ashton. With my poor English at the time, I didn’t speak two words. He told me, ‘You should go and ask him, I want 'Ondine' for the Opera’. And I said, ‘Well, Rudolf, if he doesn’t want you to have it, how do you want ME to get it? I will never be able to convince Sir Ashton.’
IB: You would have danced Ondine?
SG: Well, that’s what he wanted me to do, I guess... [She approached Ashton at a party]. Well, Sir Ashton told me he did not want to go back to Paris and work there. He had problems before in Paris. Well, fine! Next! [She swiped her hands together, decisively]. I think he was afraid not to be understood by the French. Actually I don’t think ‘Ondine’ would have been the best piece to introduced Ashton in the Paris Opera. But once again I think Rudolf wanted it because of Margot, honouring her. I think it was like a homage to her, if he could have brought 'Ondine', because it was when she was really sick. [‘Ondine’ was one of two ballets left by Ashton to Fonteyn.]
IB: M&A does seem to have much more choreography than people thought—it’s a star vehicle that does actually go, in Ashton’s words.
SG: Yes, yes. That’s why the Royal Ballet should keep it for themselves, because it’s part of their real repertoire.
Photo: Sylvie Guillem as Marguerite in Ashton's "Marguerite and Armand." Photo: Bill Cooper.