Review: Sylvie Guillem & Russell Maliphant - PUSH - London Coliseum

Performance: 29 July - 2 August 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 31 July 2014

Sylvie Guillem & Russell Maliphant in 'Push'. Photo: Johan Persson

Performance reviewed: 30 July

An air of worshipful reverence is not often experienced at a dance performance but it aptly describes the soulful – if not spiritual – feelings encountered at the London Coliseum this week. The fact that this theatre is due to go ‘dark’ (without performances) for the rest of August seems an appropriate recognition of the era-ending significance of this event. This legendary pair of dancers is an act that deserves not to be followed.

It is nearly ten years since this remarkable collaboration between Russell Maliphant and Sylvie Guillem first burst onto the stage as one of the artistic highlights of the ‘noughties’. PUSH was born at Sadler’s Wells and it has since been performed in nearly 50 cities and seen live by around 200,000 people. Now, it has returned home to London to be experienced for the last time, thus extracting the very essence of bittersweet.

Unseemly though it may be, it is impossible not to make reference to age. Guillem and Maliphant were both in their early forties when this show premiered, an age at which most dancers are – if not already retired – thinking seriously about the next, non-dancing stage of their career. Ten years’ later and Guillem is six months’ short of her fiftieth birthday, a milestone that was passed by Maliphant in 2011. Dancers are athletes in all but name and in sport they would have been classified as ‘veterans’ many years ago. But, if sporting prowess declines with age, this programme shows that there are rare occasions when the capacity to entertain through dance improves with experience; for I have no doubt that the long run of this production is ending even better than it began.

It could be supposed that an audience might feel short-changed by an hour-long show consisting of just three brief solos and a duet but a prolonged standing ovation indicated otherwise. The programme is all Maliphant’s choreography with a first act consisting of two pieces that pre-date PUSH, front-ended by an original solo made for Guillem (joining the growing list of such works simply entitled Solo, which I’m pleased to report is the only unimaginative thing about it)! This and another work performed by Guillem – the much-developed Two (first seen danced by Maliphant’s wife, Dana Fouras, in the 1990s) – surround another older contribution, Shift, which sees Maliphant perform against a backdrop of screens that provide “a second stage” for him to be joined by his own shadow (in fact up to a trio of them). The second act is given over to the title work, a glistening half-hour duet for both dancers.

Shadows aside, there are just the two principals on stage but, throughout the hour, the work of a third person is ever-present and – shadows to the fore – it creates an envelope of effects that elevate the brilliance of the choreography (and of the performers) through a quantum leap of Herculean achievement. This comes through the artistry of Michael Hulls who creates a visual richness on the stage that is without parallel. There are other great lighting designers out there but no-one stretches the boundaries so imaginatively from project to project. The well-known features of Guillem’s face are never clear in Solo as she moves from one lighting pool to another (here a square, there a circle), performing to a compilation of the flamenco guitar recordings of Carlos Montoya. We don’t need to recognise her since the outline of Guillem’s body and the shapes of her movement are unique. She is a silhouette from the outside-in and from the inside-out; with the contours and outline of her body picked out within her bobbly, flecked, voluminous white trouser-suit (designed by Ha Van-Volika).

“How did he do that?” asked my companion, in the interval, referring to the way in which Maliphant’s shadow appears, disappears, duplicates, triplicates, grows and diminishes throughout Shift. I’m sure she was not alone in this mystified enquiry. There’s no smoke or mirrors to this magic, just cleverly placed lighting and backdrop curtains. It’s not rocket science but it creates a memorable and mesmerising impact. The same is true in Two although magical effects are achieved in an entirely different way. Dancing within a small square of illumination, which gradually fades as the physical and musical momentum increases, the extremities of Guillem’s long limbs begin to catch the outer projections of light, giving the impression of momentary sparks of sulphurous incandescence, thus exaggerating the intensity of her movement. The lighting of Push is gentler, having a structural significance in terms of carving up time and space, breaking up the movement sequences and opening up new performance areas. It also bathes the stage in soft blue-grey tones, giving a liquid feel to the flow of Maliphant’s choreography and setting a seal on the relationship between the two performers that manages to be both sensuous and asexual. Hulls’ contribution to the runaway, global success of this programme is all-embracing.

There is a deep sculptural quality to Maliphant’s choreography across all four pieces. This is dancing without jumps or multiple spins; where the only fireworks leap out of the lighting effects; and where the beauty of line, of shapes, of torsion and of simple, often repeated movements, always performed elegantly, is the essence of its eloquence. Maliphant has a deeply enquiring mind into the way bodies can be self-moulded into creating beautiful shapes, which he has pursued through the rigour of studying many forms of dance, plus yoga, tai chi and Rolfing© technique. He demonstrates this knowledge through the intricate movements in Shift (where Maliphant seems able to isolate and move parts of his torso that shouldn’t be able to twist on their own). This career-long enquiry has already morphed into the world of sculpture through his recent piece on Auguste Rodin.

Where Shift seems to represent a personal thesis on the potential for this sculpting of his own body as a moving shape in space (an effect reinforced by the shadows), Push takes its lead from Two by doubling the effect. It has an absorbing, hypnotic impact that means half-an-hour flashes by too quickly and the juxtaposition of these two incredible performers: one a model of serene power and strength firmly rooted in the earth and the other a body of such graceful, fluid movement that she seems unbound by the normal laws of weight and gravity. Push is dance that flows through a rich and seamless series of beautiful images.

There is nothing sadder than seeing performers past their prime still trying to do the things that they could once do much better. But, here we have two performers who may well be veterans – although nothing about them appears to merit such a label – but still delivering dance entertainment of the highest order. It is sad to contemplate that these performances of PUSH will never be seen again after this run is complete but they could not be saying goodbye to it in any better shape. The sweet thought remains that there must be scope (and time) for a sequel.

Continues at the London Coliseum until Sunday.

Photos: Johan Persson

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times 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. Find him on Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post comments.

Sign in now

What’s On