Review: Sylvie Guillem - Life in Progress - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 25 - 31 May 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 28 May 2015

Sylvie Guillem & Emanuela Montanari in Russell Maliphant's 'Here & After'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Performance reviewed: 27 May

Closing her farewell performance with Mats Ek’s Bye was a ‘no brainer’ decision for Sylvie Guillem. This poignant solo was made specifically for her by the Swedish choreographer, back in 2011, and in many ways it provides a metaphor for this transitional watershed in her long and distinguished career. That she has chosen to name her farewell tour a Life in Progress indicates that 39 years as a dancer is but a prelude to the next steps for Guillem; who turned 50, three months’ ago. It has gained added piquancy through recent reported comments by Ek that he no longer intends to create new work.

Guillem is a dancer who rarely looks back although when she has returned to old haunts it has been with performances to the same exacting standards, such as when making a brief comeback to wearing pointe shoes to dance Manon at La Scala, in 2011; having redefined herself as a contemporary dancer over the previous decade.

Her transition from ballet was effected through a series of collaborations, beginning way back when William Forsythe chose her to dance the central duet of In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated at the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987; and continuing through the final phase of her career in celebrated partnerships with Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan. And it is to these three choreographers that she has turned – along with the automatic choice of Ek’s special gift to her – to provide the material for her swansong.

The programme begins with technê, a new work by Khan, made in collaboration with Guillem at the beginning of 2015. In keeping with her innate philosophy to seek new challenges, technê is choreography that stretches the image and inner self of Guillem beyond that which we know. For sure, there is still the sharpest of lines, the tightest of pirouettes and that inimitable style so indelibly stamped by Guillem (no less certain with the advancing of age) that we would know it instantly were she just a silhouette; but, here also is a new and reinvented dancer, still looking forwards even at her farewell.

We first encounter her, emerging from the darkness – as if with the dawn – in halting quick-slow, reptilian movements, on four “legs”, her arms held menacingly stiff and straight as if at the ready to whip out a claw or a sting. Despite the obvious short change on the number of legs, the manner of movement and the sensory, exploratory function of her arms (as front legs) brought to mind an arachnid image.

Both brand new works possessed a highly visual design quality. Where technê featured a revolving wire tree as the centrepiece around which Guillem performed her long, exhausting solo, Russell Maliphant’s Here & After relied upon a ‘greatest hits’ collection of Michael Hulls’ lighting effects; drawing inspiration from Maliphant’s past works with Guillem. These references were, however, cleverly integrated as borrowed phrases in an entirely new setting, topped out by providing a ‘first’ for the star in her inaugural duet with another woman.

All those years of being partnered (supported and presented) by a male ballet dancer and she ends her dance career in a free-flowing contemporary duet with a female. This unique honour went to Emanuela Montanari – a soloist with the Teatro alla Scala in Milan – and both women danced strongly and sensitively in this sentimental conversation conducted in the unmistakeably vocabulary of Maliphant’s movement, bathed in the equally distinctive artistry of Hulls’ lighting.

In a sense, Forsythe drew the short straw since his was a long-extant work and the only piece not to feature Guillem. Duo – made for Ballett Frankfurt, in 1996 – was a necessary stocking-filler, allowing Guillem time to recover and change between technê and Here & After. An all-male duet of intricate movement, featuring complex arm actions, fully utilising Rudolf Laban’s concept of the kinesphere of personal space enclosed within a dancer’s reach, which has been expanded upon frequently in Forsythe’s choreographic material.

Two Forsythe Company dancers, Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts (who bears a striking resemblance to Forsythe at a similar age) gave a delicate and intricate masterclass in this multi-faceted puzzle of centralised and decentralised spatial zones that are often at the core of vintage Forsythe choreography. Duo presents a fascinating mental challenge that demands dedicated concentration and – in many respects – it seems a random (and not especially relevant) part of the programme.

This brings me back to Bye as an especially appropriate sign-off for Guillem. There is an unstated notion of time travel in this quirky little tale of a woman – dowdily dressed – who escapes from a capsule into another world. Her ‘home’ world is an oblong screen populated by images of people (and a dog) that cannot access the time portal at the edge of the screen: when they walk out from the side, it is into oblivion. Only Guillem can become manifest outside of the digital world and she gives every appearance of having escaped. She throws off her shoes and socks; dances with abandon; rests, reflectively, against the side of the proscenium arch; performs an inverted Buddha headstand (twice). It is as if she has rediscovered her childhood. When she has had enough, she returns to her ‘home’ world. Guillem reflects Ek’s vision of this character, since it seems that she herself has slipped through a time portal; still dancing at 50, as if she were 20 years’ younger.

Khan is quoted in the programme as stating that “Sylvie’s body (is)…in its most poetic and transparent state” and the evidence to prove this assertion is there throughout this programme. It seems right that – just as at the conclusion of Bye – she will slip back into the world of normality after Life in Progress and join the rest of the human race, quitting dance while still at her peak. We are unlikely to see anyone quite like her again.

Continues 29, 30 & 31 May (sold out – return tickets only)

This farewell tour continues through June and July in Athens, Moscow, Lyon, Genova, Cagliari and Barcelona before returning to London (the Coliseum) from 28 July – 2 August and then moving to the Edinburgh International Festival (8-10 August); Sydney Opera House (19-25 August); Birmingham Hippodrome (8/9 September) and then on to Paris, Taiwan, New York and Austria before finishing in her beloved Japan in December.

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Main photo: Sylvie Guillem & Emanuela Montanari in Russell Maliphant’s Here & After by Bill Cooper

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