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.

Ballet Boyz: The Talent

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, May 13

THE founders of BalletBoyz, Royal Ballet alumni Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, have one of the best contact books in the business. A program that offered new choreography by Russell Maliphant and Liam Scarlett stamped itself as a must-see: the work of a contemporary master alongside the UK’s most feted young classical dance-maker. The fact that Scarlett’s piece turned out to be less than riveting was in an odd way a positive experience, at least for me. The 27-year-old is being talked up extensively, particularly in the UK press, so it was good to be able to see for oneself.

Liam Scarlett's Serpent. Photo: Michele Mossop

Liam Scarlett’s Serpent. Photo: Michele Mossop

In my case I was taking a second look at Scarlett’s work as earlier this year I caught Scarlett’s relatively new commission for New York City Ballet, Acheron. I was not exactly bowled over. In what is becoming quite a Scarlett-fest, I will see his take on Jack the Ripper, Sweet Violets, with the Royal Ballet when I’m in London next week; reviews weren’t entirely positive when it premiered in 2012 although they were supportive. Reviews of this revival, just out, suggest Scarlett has done some work on this one-act narrative piece but that it remains a bit over-stuffed.

Dance writers seem desperate to find a new young choreographer who works in the classical idiom without distorting it in the ways Wayne McGregor and, to a lesser extent, Christopher Wheeldon are seen to do. Scarlett has clearly been nominated as the great hope. (When Sweet Violets premierered it was on a bill with McGregor and Wheeldon, as it happens.)

There is something of a backlash at present against what is seen as extreme manipulations of the body in the work of McGregor and Wheeldon, particularly the manipulation of women. This is a relevant area of interest and concern, although it won’t help the art form or Scarlett if Scarlett is over-praised too early in his career as the one who can save ballet from this direction.

I hope he can take the pressure. Scarlett is being picked up by classical companies around the world and there isn’t a lot of competition in his category. Everything he does is watched very closely.

But back to the BalletBoyz. There was an extra degree of difficulty to add interest in this company as Nunn and Trevitt were exclusively working with men aged between 18 and 25 who come from diverse dance backgrounds or, in the case of one member, no dance training at all. The Talent is about expanding chances for men to dance and sharing the joy as widely as possible.

In Serpent Scarlett went for flowing, introspective movement that incorporates several striking images but offers little sense of purpose. A man lifted out of a tight group then absorbed back into it, a solo figure breaking away from the pack, one still man in profile as the others move – these showed Scarlett’s ability to make a fine moment but overall the piece felt soppy despite the men’s muscularity, aided in this by Max Richter’s soft-centred score that includes the sound of water falling. I thought of gently wafting seaweed rather than sexy, sinuous, dangerous snakes. Not terribly interesting.

I discovered later that there were nine men on stage instead of the 10 mentioned in the pre-show videos because one was ill. The works had been rearranged to go on without him. Were some of the images I admired in the Scarlett the result of an odd number of performers on stage – as in the one still man in profile? I do hope not. It would make Serpent even less interesting.

Maliphant’s Fallen was thrilling, as expected. It uses traces of folk imagery, intimations of martial activity and wonderful lifts and falls that have a hallucinatory quality. Michael Hulls’s lighting was a forceful character in itself and Armand Amar’s rumbling score, while perhaps bringing a Jason Bourne film too frequently to mind, supported the action well.

As Maliphant tactfully put it in a short introductory film, he was working with a group of people with different skill sets. Yes, some of the young men were slightly more polished than others but in Fallen, each immersed himself to the hilt and each looked right at home.