Review: Sylvie Guillem - Life in Progress - London Coliseum

Performance: 28 July - 2 August 2015
Reviewed by Siobhan Murphy - Thursday 30 July 2015

Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan's 'technê'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Performance reviewed: 28 July

The only time I remember getting shivers down my spine in the theatre was watching Sylvie Guillem in the last act of the Royal Ballet’s Manon. It wasn’t just how she could place those willowy limbs with steely precision, could throw herself higher into the air than any other ballerina, could hold that six o’clock extension with a tauntingly casual defiance. These had all filled me with wonder… but in that moment, as her character was dying a squalid death in a Louisiana swamp, you suddenly saw how utterly vulnerable she was. Watching such emotional delicacy allied with such physical strength was devastating. That was ten years ago, and the thought of it makes me tingle even now. When, much later, Tamara Rojo explained she wanted to join the Royal Ballet primarily so she could just watch Sylvie, I totally understood.

So it was hard not to approach her farewell dance performance – after almost 35 years on the stage – with a heavy heart; as something you have to see but don’t really want to watch. Maybe it’s apt, then, that the programme for Life In Progress is so curiously low-key. Guillem has never opted for the easy path, and has always questioned the artform she loves, and here, where others would be throwing a showy celebration, she is still quietly and determinedly probing and experimenting. The result is a somewhat downbeat evening.

She has turned to choreographers who have provided significant milestones in her stellar career to see her out. Akram Khan’s technê is a curiosity; revolving around a wire mesh tree, it sees Guillem transformed by movements that seem more insect/animal than human. She scuttles beetle-like, crouched to the floor, her knees jerking like pistons; she scrabbles with questing fingers; she paws the ground with an imperious foot. There’s a sense of an elemental life force stirring on stage, which maybe taps into her late-blooming environmental concerns – and a soft kathak echo in some of her gestures and Prathap Ramachandra’s percussion (augmented by horror film-like scratchy whispers and violin). But it’s a life force stirring in shadows, which makes this an eerie opener for the show.

William Forsythe’s DUO2015 is danced by Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts. It’s a piece you need to be up close to, I think, to fully appreciate, as then you are jolted by how these men are responding so entirely to each other’s energy, without touching each other at all. The accompanying soundtrack is barely there – just intermittent sounds like a finger passing round the rim of a glass. But as they fall in and out of sync, bristling with intensity, you get the wonderful impression that if one were not there, the other would be unable to move.

Guillem returns for Here & After, a duet with La Scala’s Emanuela Montanari, created for them by Russell Maliphant. Again, the lighting is subdued to the point of gloomy, as the women describe careful circles revealing typical Maliphant tropes of hold, balance and control. It gets livelier as the music switches up to first drum’n’bass, then a rather bizarre yodelling, and the pair chase each other across ever-shifting patterns of squares of light, casually challenging, sinuously graceful. Would it be as alluring if it wasn’t Sylvie up there? I’m not so sure, for all its provocative humour.

And then we come to the end. Mats Ek’s Bye, first performed in 2011, is, of course, a poignant way to bring things to a close. There’s something about the exaggerated gestures, wryly humorous interaction with projected images, piano accompaniment and lingering edge of melancholy that bring to mind the classic silent comedies. Guillem, in her designer-dowdy guise of cardi and socks, is at once little girl full of glee and woman facing up to age and loss. Her prowess in pure technique is here shown as undimmed even at the age of 50 and her charisma fills the stage. But you can’t help feeling this already legendary dancer, who reconstructed how we thought of ballet, leaves us not with a bang but a whimper. I shall cherish more my memory of that Manon, and her age-defying reprisal of Push last year – and thank her always for those memories.

Continues at the London Coliseum until Sunday 2 August

The Life in Progress tour continues with performances at the Edinburgh International Festival (8-10 August); Sydney Opera House (19-25 August); final UK performances at Birmingham Hippodrome (8 & 9 September) and then on to Paris, Taiwan, New York and Austria before finishing in Japan in December.

Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and editor, who also contributes to Dancetabs and Time Out. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily

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