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

Performance: 25 - 29 November 2014
Reviewed by Siobhan Murphy - Thursday 27 November 2014

Sylvie Guillem & Akram Khan 'Sacred Monsters.' Photo: Mikki Kunttu

Performance reviewed: 26 November

Ballet superstar turned contemporary darling Sylvie Guillem’s retirement announcement has loaded these performances of her duet with Akram Khan, first performed in 2006, with extra charge. Add to that the fact that Khan (whose prolific year has included working with ENB and flamenco star Israel Galvan) is suggesting he’ll soon stop dancing too, and you can see why this revival of Sacred Monsters is such a hot ticket.

Shizuka Hariu’s simple staging offers a blank space vaguely reminiscent of a chalk quarry, where the pair can mine their distinct classical training (ballet and kathak) and shared creative curiosity to find points of contact and contrast.

Guillem starts with a solo by Lin Hwai-Min of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Tentative steps develop into a whirling fusion of classical precision and Guillem’s famous six o’clock legs with free-wheeling round-house kicks and meditative balance, where she playfully experiments with foot and hand positions, feeling out new-found freedoms. Khan’s solo, created by Gauri Sharma Tripathi, is a scintillating display of kathak, combining flowing liquid arm movements with fiendishly mathematical footwork that follows startling rhythm patterns. It’s given poignancy by Khan’s wry spoken reflections on his fears as a young performer about going bald.

You get the sense that the Sacred Monsters of the title are the classical traditions they have emerged from; beautiful dance forms which demand reverence, absolute perfection and no questioning. From here on in, in marked contrast to such rigours, Guillem and Khan’s piece is deliberately baggy and meandering, offering a forum for doubts and queries and experimentation.

It revolves around the pair’s bantering rapport, which in truth only avoids teetering over into whimsy thanks to the charismatic stage presence of these great performers, and Guillem’s rather splendidly dry Gallic humour. She relates a story about Sally from the Peanuts comic strip, agonises about the value of her art, decides to speak only in Italian (with a joke about tiramisu) and chides Khan for sweating too much. Khan, in turn, pretends to ignore her, then plays the fall guy with relish and good comic timing. A bit self-indulgent, but it’s lovely to see that they can keep this back-and-forth bubbly and light, even after eight years, their gentle teasing hinting at a deep friendship between them.

And when they come together in loose duets there’s a real sense of struggle, investigation and reaching for explanations. The pair clash with pushing, shoving and headbutting, then find their synergy, creating wave formations with linked arms, or moving mesmerically as one when Guillem suspends herself round Khan’s waist (both the latter used by Khan again in his ENB piece Dust).

Not all of it is transfixing, and you might wish for some of these moments to be more fully formed, but watching two formidable dance talents reach for a physical (as well as linguistic) translation of ‘émerveillé’ is still an experience that leaves you joyously buoyant.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until Saturday (return tickets only)

Photo: Mikki Kunttu

Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and until recently was Arts Editor of Metro. She also writes for Dancetabs. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily

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