Review: Sylvie Guillem & Akram Khan in Sacred Monsters at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 19-23 Sep
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 21 September 2006

That this is an extraordinary event is beyond doubt. The artistry of Guillem and Khan is guaranteed to raise any work above the ordinary but I was looking (mostly in vain) for more excitement from this potentially explosive combination. My expectation that the fusion of dance styles for which they are both famous would open new doors lay mostly unsatisfied.

This work is about fame_. ‘Sacred Monsters’_ is a reference to Monstres Sacrés, the term used in 19th Century France to denote giants of the stage. The side-effect of this label is that the performance has to be about the performers and this inevitably means that it must of necessity flirt with the excesses of self-indulgence.

Any performance involving Sylvie Guillem, let alone a world premiere – as this was – is bound to be greeted by adulation from her legion of fans. This is a Sylvie that has not been seen before: she sings (very well, with an excellent low range); she converses with Akram (in English, French and Italian); she mops the floor; she tells anecdotes – one of which explains, whilst simultaneously placing her limbs into a variety of poses, how she learned Italian from ‘Charlie Brown’ comic strips. It shows her in the new light of successfully delivering a lying-down, stand-up routine merging verbal and physical humour very successfully. And she also dances, initially in a slow, lugubrious solo where Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s Lin Hwai Min has exploited her exceptionally still balances and slowly unfurling limbs.

There is also a signature opening solo for Akram (choreographed by Gauri Sharma Tripathi) which develops the main classical characteristics of Kathak: the shimmering, almost imperceptible whole-body movement, cascading up and out from the feet; the graceful elegance of arms and fingers; fast changes of pace and spinning pirouettes.

The remainder of the 75-minute work (no interval) was devoted to the various interactions between the two ‘sacred monsters’ and with their onstage collaborators (three musicians and two vocalists). There were several spoken interludes between danced duets, each of which had a distinctly auto-biographical flavour, but it was the dance that they interrupted, which carried the most interest. It’s difficult not to reflect disappointment in the overall verdict of their shared movement which is not to deny that there were some wonderful parts. One duet had them joined through interlinked fingers of both hands and stretched to the limit their movement potential as this combined entity; another had Sylvie entwined around her partner’s waist so that they resembled the eponymous monster, a creature with one pair of legs and two bodies. These golden moments aside, I regret to say that much of the rest of their shared performance was distinctly unmemorable.

And that really is the flavour of the evening: some brilliant moments and beautiful images (not least the frozen wasteland of Shizuka Hariu’s set) were conjured out of the mix but it strayed into the realms of pretentiousness and, worse still, had periods of bland, soporiphic nothingness. There are those that will worship at the altar of their ‘Sacred Monsters’ come what may but there are many others who will expect more than this performance offers.

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