Sylvie Guillem: Life in Progress

Sydney Opera House, August 19.

LET’S not talk in the past tense about Sylvie Guillem. She may be on her farewell tour but she is still one of the greatest of the greats. Until December, when she calls it quits, she is still a dancer and still a superstar.

At 50 she leaves the stage on her own terms with an intensely personal program that shows her as she is now, a peerless exponent of works by some of contemporary ballet’s biggest names. Not for Guillem a nostalgic look back to her storied classical career. That was then. It’s enough that she is known as the most daring, searching and original ballerina of her generation, one whose astounding physical gifts and ferocious individuality were a game-changer in the art.

Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan's techne. Photo: Bill Cooper Choreographer; Akram Khan, Dancer; Sylvie Guillem, Compose;r Alies Sluiter published by Mushroom Music Publishing/BMG Chrysalis Lighting Designer; Lucy Carter, Costume Designer; Kimie Nakano, Dancer; Sylvie Guillem, Musician;s Prathap Ramachandra, Grace Savage, Alies Sluiter,

Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan’s techne. Photo: Bill Cooper

Not many dancers would announce their retirement by appearing in premieres but Guillem is exploring possibilities to the end. There are two new works and one favourite for her on the Life in Progress bill, which opens with the solo technê by Akram Khan. The title refers to skill or art and Guillem is seen in all her mysterious majesty, whether scuttling insect-like, pawing the ground with those magnificent legs and feet or circumnavigating a circle of light as her body twists around itself: wheels within wheels. There is thunder in the air, a gauzy tree in the centre to which she is inexorably drawn and a strong sense of the numinous. It’s a wonderful work, performed with the luxury of three musicians on stage with Guillem.

Russell Maliphant’s Here & After, also new, sees Guillem for the first time in a duo for two women. It presents Guillem’s qualities of thoroughbred line, whipping and slicing legs and elegant wit so no complaints, even if it’s one of Maliphant’s less substantial works. La Scala soloist Emanuela Montanari is Guillem’s partner, inevitably outshone.

Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in Duo2015. Photo: Bill Cooper

Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in William Forsythe’s Duo2015. Photo: Bill Cooper

William Forsythe’s Duo2015 (originally from 1996) gives Guillem a break while giving a nod to the choreographer’s place in her legend. In 1987 he made In the middle, somewhat elevated for Paris Opera Ballet and exploited Guillem’s explosive strength, awe-inspiring elasticity and supreme elegance. It made a sensation. Duo2015 is a riveting, sinewy pas de deux for two men (Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, both thrilling) who don’t touch but can’t seem to part. It has something of the eternal quality of Waiting for Godot. Nothing and everything happens.

Guillem returns to Mats Ek’s Bye (2011) as her finale (it was part of her 6000 Miles Away program, seen in Sydney in 2013). In this context Bye feels weightier than before as ordinary life, seen through a doorway, exerts its pull. Guillem is seen at her least glamorous and most vulnerable in this wry, unsentimental exit.

Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek's Bye. Photo: Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek’s Bye. Photo: Bill Cooper

But then Guillem has never done things like anyone else, including signing off. Life in Progress ends in Tokyo on December 20 but during that month Guillem also joins her beloved Tokyo Ballet for a touring program that includes Maurice Béjart’s popular Boléro. Guillem’s website lists Hiroshima on December 28 as her last performance but I am told – thank you Naomi from Tokyo! – that there will also be a performance on December 30 in Yokohama.

And a further update. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see Guillem in conversation today at the Sydney Opera House but I am reliably told she said she will exit with Boléro in Tokyo just before the stroke of midnight. That, I have to assume, will be on December 31, seconds before her final year in dance ends. Spectacular.

What a way to go, the dancer on a table – in the middle, somewhat elevated we might say – responding to Ravel’s increasingly ecstatic music as a circle of adoring men pays homage.

What a woman.

Life in Progress ends at the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday. It then travels to Birmingham, Paris, Taipei, Beijing, Singapore, Shanghai, New York, St Pölten (Austria) and Tokyo.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on August 21.

6000 miles away

Choreography by William Forsythe, Mats Ek and Jiri Kylian. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, March 8

MATS Ek’s Bye is the crowd-pleasing work in this rich, concentrated evening of dance but William Forsythe’s Rearray is where the real nourishment is. Forsythe and Sylvie Guillem go way back – nearly a quarter of a century – and his understanding of her unique gifts runs deep. The outstanding physical qualities are still in thrilling shape despite Guillem now being closer (much closer) to 50 than 40. Her plasticity is extraordinary, the limbs long and ultra-refined, the arch of her foot dramatic in its intensity, her line and placement exquisite. But despite their luxurious quality, these things are merely the tools at Guillem’s disposal. In recent years Guillem has taken an adventurous approach to her work, and her celebrity is such that audiences will go where she goes.

Sylvie Guillem in Bye, by Mats Ek. Photo: Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem in Bye, by Mats Ek. Photo: Bill Cooper

Rearray was made on Guillem and one of her regular partners, Paris Opera Ballet’s Nicolas Le Riche: classical ballet royalty, in other words. Le Riche has been injured of late and for that reason wasn’t seen in the recent POB season of Giselle in Sydney. For this tour of 6000 miles away Guillem appears with another of her (few) frequent partners, Massimo Murru of La Scala.

Rearray is something of a love letter to classical dance in that it persistently returns to ballet steps and positions while removing them entirely from a conventional ballet setting. There are gorgeous ports de bras, sharp beaten steps, creamy pirouettes, a frequent stop in an open fourth position and so on, but they are seen in a dreamlike context, given astringency by David Morrow’s austere score.

The light, never strong at any point, fades in and out of a space enclosed with dark curtains. Guillem and Murru, dressed in simple dark trousers and tops, enter and leave. They dance together and separately, giving suggestions of other worlds. At one point Guillem does a little hip twirl accompanied by feet that could come from a square dance; Murru, with his hands clasped behind his back, has his body in planes that make one think of Merce Cunningham. But these are hints only.

As the relatively brief work unfolds the desire to see more grows ever greater but is thwarted. It’s impossible, Forsythe seems to be saying, to see and know everything. Guillem and Murru leave for the last time, the light dies away and the mystery continues.

Bye starts with the startling filmed image of Guillem’s eye in close-up. It is quite an unsparing view but Guillem, bless her, seems to have little vanity. Fair enough when you are as naturally elegant as she is, I suppose. This elegance is something to be overcome in Bye, which shows a woman breaking free of home and hearth for a moment to cut the tiniest bit loose. Guillem is dressed by Katrin Brannstrom in a skirt, blouse and cardy which on anyone else would look exceptionally daggy and which on her has the air of being by Miuccia Prada. She makes ungainly shapes with those glorious limbs and even stands on her head a couple of times. Probably only she could get away with it, but Guillem makes Bye, danced to the lovely Arietta from Beethoven’s Piano sonata Op.111, a touching picture of the everyday housewife. It’s done with humour, touches of the unexpected and a lovely combination of play and wistfulness.

Jiri Kylian’s 27’52” acts as a kind of curtain-raiser to Guillem’s pieces and shares something of their mood and appearance. There is an almost bare stage, a spare sound, crepuscular lighting and something not entirely knowable being enacted, although the result is not in the same league as Bye and, especially, Rearray. This is minor Kylian as a man and a woman negotiate a space in which intimacy and separation play equal parts but it’s given top-notch performances by former Nederlands Dans Theater members Natasa Novotna and Vaclav Kunes. What they do has a strong degree of obviousness but their melting fluidity is mesmerising.  27’52” – I’m pretty sure it didn’t last that long, but what the heck – is billed as being performed “with the participation of Benjamin Stuart-Carberry”. Until last year he was a member of the Australian Ballet and I looked forward to seeing what he would do here. Alas his role is the briefest walk-on as he appears in the gloom, just onstage, to cover Novotna with the end of a long strip of material. Puzzling that one would ask a highly trained dancer to do so little.

6000 miles away continues until Friday March 15.