When Les Grands Ballets Canadiens' Anik Bissonnette announced her retirement from the company earlier this year, the news came as a surprise but not a shock. While Bissonnette is still wowing audiences at forty-four, her departure was to be expected sooner rather than later. However saddened her fans were, there was the consolation that Bissonnette will continue dancing for other groups and that Les Grands will be sending her off with a gala next year. But no sooner were Montrealers able to absorb the fact that one extraordinary Québécoise ballerina was winding down her dancing career when, a month later, another, the luminous Geneviève Guérard, announced that she too was leaving. Guérard, also a principal dancer at Les Grands, was saying goodbye not just to the company, but to dancing for good-and at the end of this season, no less.
Regarded as the heir of both Bissonnette and Andrea Boardman (another of Les Grands' most beloved ballerinas), Guérard seemed to have several more years in front of her as a dancer, but the thirty-three-year-old has decided to move on to other pastures. "It's a major step," Guérard told me when we met at a Plateau café one spring morning, a couple of weeks after her announcement. "But this is the way I've always dreamed of it happening-I've always dreamed of being able to make a transition at the top of my career."
And what a career it has been. Who could forget Guérard's purity of line as the Snow Queen in The Nutcracker, her touching vulnerability-tempered by strength-of-character-as Cinderella, her lyricism in Nacho Duato's Without Words or her ferocity in Mats Ek's Appartement? The list is endless. As Linde Howe-Beck in Dance Magazineput it, "It's forever fascinating to watch Geneviève Guérard's sunny and versatile approach to ballet; whether dancing Petipa, Balanchine or contemporary ballets, she overlays a fine technique with personal warmth, intelligence and vivacity."
Born in La Prairie, Québec, Guérard did not grow up with visions of Sugar Plum Fairies dancing in her head-she was interested in becoming an actress. The closest she got to ballet was with a few recreational jazz and gymnastic classes. But unexpectedly, at the age of twelve, she found what "felt like destiny." Having tagged along with a friend who wanted to audition for a ballet program at École Pierre Laporte, she thought she might as well try out too-before the audition, she got someone to quickly teach her the basic ballet positions. Like a plot-line out of the movie Fame, Guérard (who, at the time, would have been considered by many too old to begin ballet) not only passed the audition but caught the eye of Ludmilla Chiriaeff, director of the École supérieure de danse du Québec, and founder of Les Grands. From that moment on, and for the next twenty years of her life, Guérard would be linked to the company and its affiliated schools.
Vincent Warren, formerly an ESDQ instructor and Les Grands' principal dancer, remembers how evidently gifted Guérard was from the get-go. Upon hearing the news of his former student's retirement, he said with admiration, "Not only is she beautiful, not only is she intelligent, but she has that extra something you can't define that goes out to the public-which I would say is charisma. No matter what she does, you look at her even if there are others onstage. You can't teach that." Warren, now curator of the Bibliothéque de la danse, has seen many a talent come and go in his forty-year-plus career. He added, "People are born with it and Geneviève Guérard had it from the very beginning, even at that first audition. Obviously we saw that there was a radiant soul there. I will regret so much her leaving dance because there aren't many like her."
True enough. Not long after she joined Les Grands in 1992, Guérard found herself dancing the lead in Balanchine's Agon. In 1996 she was made a soloist and, in 1999, a principal dancer. She capped her promotion with a stunning turn in one of the most difficult roles in a ballerina's repertoire, Balanchine's Theme and Variations. To hear Guérard describe that performance and how much she suffered from stage fright (she found strength in creating a fighting alter-ego for herself) is to be amazed that someone with so much facility could be so modest about her gift and so grateful for what dance has given her. But then Guérard possesses offstage, as much as on, a down-to-earth charm that makes her one of the loveliest women in all of Montreal.
As Guérard reflects back on her career, you can hear in her voice a deep appreciation and respect for the choreographers she has worked with-Ohad Naharin, Nacho Duato, Ginnette Laurin and Stijn Celis, to name a few. When she speaks of major title roles like "Cinderella" and "Carmen," you feel her joy at having had such theatrical opportunities; at how much she loved "that feeling of going onstage and, in a way, carrying the show-carrying out the story and making sure that, without words, it's very readable." And when Guérard speaks about one of her role models, Andrea Boardman, you sense a thrill-one that has not waned since her student days-at seeing her idol dance, as well as pride in the friendship that the two have fashioned. "This [relationship] was a big accomplishment because I had posters of her in my bedroom," she recounts with delight. "I was just in awe of her versatility."
Boardman, for her part, can't say enough about how special Guérard is, pointing out everything from her winsome personality to her beautiful form and technical ability. "There are some people who dance but they just move," asserts Boardman. "With Geneviève you feel everything at once. You know her heart and soul are in it and coming together and out of her. That is what's so beautiful and why people are so touched."
Despite all of Guérard's talent, her dance career has not exactly been a walk in the park. That exquisite, ballerina-perfect body has been not only a blessing but also a source of pain-Guérard has congenital hyperlaxity, a condition of excessively loose joints, which has led to injuries. She hopes that by quitting dancing now, she will be able to keep her body relatively healthy.
And the soon to be ex-dancer has other concerns. First, there is her toddler-aged daughter whom she finds hard to leave when Les Grands tours. There is also her desire to try new things, like television. Indeed, this past season, Guérard got her first taste of the industry as a judge on Radio-Canada's popular dance-off, Le match des étoiles, which she will continue with in the coming year while working towards other TV projects.
As Guérard talks about her dreams for the future, her excitement is as palpable as her happiness in the realization that outside the world of ballet she is still considered a young woman. Yet a tinge of sadness hangs in the air as she admits that she hasn't had enough time to fully process what the end of her dance career means.
She is not alone. As Alain Dancyger, executive director of Les Grands puts it, "Everybody in a way is in some kind of mourning ... [but] we are so happy that the two people leaving here, Anik and Geneviève, have managed their career transitions very successfully." In fact, Guérard herself feels she is leaving on a high note-her performance in Québec City as the Sugar Plum Fairy this past holiday season was her best yet, she says with pride. After the show, "a phrase came to me out of nowhere. 'What a great time to quit.' It surprised me. It was an overwhelming feeling."
To quit dancing is hard enough, but, she says philosophically, "it is, I think, harder to do it when you are on your way down and you are asked to go." If there is any consolation for her fans (who will miss her dearly) other than their treasured memories of her onstage, it is that this irreplaceable dancer is bidding adieu to dance without bitterness, and instead with satisfaction.
As Guérard and I finished up our conversation, her last thoughts were for the future-not of her own but that of little girls who may dare to dream as she did. While she understands that not all will become ballerinas, there are other dreams worth pursuing with the same kind of drive that she discovered in herself. "Ballet was so far from me. Even when I started dancing, it felt like such an alien world. It felt like, 'Oh, I don't belong.' But I realized that the talent, the belief and the love were inside me and somehow there was a way. If the love is there, there's always a way."
Geneviève Guérard's last performances run during the "Mats Ek Evenings" May 25, 26 and 27 and again on June 1, 2 and 3 at Place des Arts. See les Grands Ballets Canadiens website for more information.