Great dancers like Sylvie Guillem separate themselves from the rest by paying incredible attention to detail and giving every little movement as much meaning as they can. Every nuance of every piece is carefully examined and turned into a transformative experience for the audience. There are plenty of ballerinas who can get their feet up to their ears but there are only a few who make you care deeply about all of those in-between steps. That’s the difference between good and great. As Guillem slithered and slashed through Akram Khan’s Technê, I reflected that this wasn’t a sad occasion. This wasn’t one of those painful performances where you feel embarrassed for an aging dancer who’s lost her technique but doesn’t realize that it’s time to leave the stage. Guillem still has the capacity to transfix the audience with those electric legs of hers. She still moves with incredible passion. She is an étoile now just as much as she was when Nureyev elevated her to the top rank of the Paris Opera Ballet back in 1984.

Sylvie Guillem in <i>Technê</i> © Bill Cooper
Sylvie Guillem in Technê
© Bill Cooper

Technê, opening this program, had Guillem skittering across the stage, crouched down like a bug. It was an otherworldly quality of movement in a dim, somewhat post-apocalyptic setting. Her knees vibrated up and down as she warily circled a ruined tree before finally working up the courage to touch it. She was transfigured, elevated and became one with it. She conveyed the wonder of touching the last living thing on Earth. Through it all, Guillem maintained a feral tension that never let up. Definitely not a dancer on her last legs.

William Forsythe’s Duo 2015 featured Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts as the two hands of a clock, marking the passage of time. They moved in and out of tandem but always in relationship with each other. Choreographically it was the strongest piece on the program with two terrific performers. Watts is unusually flexible for a man and he tossed off Forsythe’s demanding physical distortions with an ease that made them seem natural. At one point he folded himself in half which startled the audience.

Here & After, by Russell Maliphant, paired Guillem with Italian ballerina Emanuela Montanari. Moving in close synchronicity, the duo engaged each other with friendly camaraderie. This was not competitive or strenuous dancing and had no pretensions of profundity but it celebrated friendship. They supported each other and moved with ease and grace under dappled light.

Sylvie Guillem and Emanuela Montanari in <i>Here and After</i> © Bill Cooper
Sylvie Guillem and Emanuela Montanari in Here and After
© Bill Cooper

Closing the program was Bye, created for Guillem by Mats Ek. His statement in the program says, “A woman enters a room. After a while she is ready to leave it. Ready to join others.” It had the feeling of a recapitulation of her life in dance. She entered through an imaginary door that was composed of a rectangle upon which video of her was projected. She was outside, peering in, and then she came into the room to join us. Dressed in a blouse, skirt, cardigan and ankle socks with sensible shoes, her costume was simultaneously able to denote a schoolgirl’s outfit or that of une femme d’un certaine âge. When she began to try out beginning ballet steps it was clear that she was following the path of nostalgia but this was celebratory, not maudlin.

Sylvie Guillem in <i>Bye</i> © Bill Cooper
Sylvie Guillem in Bye
© Bill Cooper
She caressed the proscenium of the stage, her home for most of her life, with a child-like sense of wonder. That she was able to do this without mawkish sentimentality tells you everything you need to know about Guillem the artist. She’s willing to revisit the past but she doesn’t live in it. She shed her sweater and shoes and took to the air with jumps that still thrill. Her dancing told us about the joy of flying through the air and spinning around with an improvisatory air. Her iconic legs with those dagger-sharp arched feet still carry more force than dancers half her age. At the end, she re-dressed herself and went off to join the sundry friends who awaited her outside the room where she gave us all so much. She could probably keep going for several more years in contemporary dance roles but she’s had enough. It’s time to go.

A farewell tour by a legend is an opportunity for her to give thanks to her fans and for us to signal our appreciation for a career that spanned 35 astonishing years. We’ve had several of these notable retirements of great ballerinas here in New York City recently but Sylvie Guillem is the only one with her own farewell tour. It was no surprise that the audience showered her with affection in her final curtain call. It was a rare privilege to be present at this milestone performance.