Heroes: Sylvie Guillem

The curtain pulled back, and I can still remember the faint smell of disinfectant that wafted out from the stage.


A harsh, green light flickered on, and during the next twenty-seven minutes, my soul was taken from my body, infused with shimmering, electrifying energy, and then handed back to me, forever changed.

From the first moment I saw her, ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem became a powerful force of inspiration for my work. Classical roles seemed to cramp her style, but she excelled in daring, bold, contemporary works.

Rumoured to have once beaten a rugby player at arm-wrestling, Guillem's bone-pale, whip-slender limbs would slice through space as sharp as razors, her wild red hair flying out behind her. She effortlessly set the stage alight with a dazzling, bewitching presence.

'I am a shy person,' she has said, 'but on stage, you can be anything you want.'

When I gate-crashed an after-show party at Sadlers Wells theatre with a dare-devil friend, I had the opportunity to meet her. She arrived late, quietly slipping into the shadows of the party with no fanfare.

'Oh my God,' I whispered hoarsely, 'she's here!' Much to my horror and delight, my friend audaciously introduced me to her. As I looked into her face, the rest of the world faded into insignificance. I stammered out something profound - something like, 'I think you're really amazing.' She was very gracious, but, curiously, didn't seem inclined to want to pursue the conversation. No matter – I was walking on air for about two weeks afterwards.

Guillem retired two years ago at the age of fifty, and I was in the audience for her final performance in London. As she stooped low before us at the end of the show, the stage swamped with heaps of flowers, we all stood up and wept like children. It was the end of an era.

Guillem now devotes her time to environmental and animal rights causes. Apparently, she suffered from the feeling that being a dancer was a trivial career to pursue when the world is in so much trouble. But maybe that's a fallacy of being an artist – you can never really know how much your work has profoundly impacted the lives of others.