sat 16/02/2019

Sylvie Guillem, 6000 Miles Away, Sadler's Wells Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Sylvie Guillem, 6000 Miles Away, Sadler's Wells Theatre

Sylvie Guillem, 6000 Miles Away, Sadler's Wells Theatre

Guillem weaves her game-changing magic in Forsythe and Ek

'Bye': Guillem in images from Mats Ek's solo for her, and below in Forsythe's RearrayImages courtesy Sadler's Wells Theatre

People go to see Sylvie Guillem the way they used to go to Isadora Duncan or Anna Pavlova, to see a living legend, a game-changer. Guillem became one of dance’s handful of game-changers not when she was the controversially over-fashioned classical ballerina, nor even when she was the arrestingly individual dramatic ballerina in great British narrative ballets. It was when she left her past imagery behind her and threw herself up into the air qua Guillem, no longer young and classical, but stripped back, au naturel, just her questing mind and her exquisite skills, and damn the tutu.

Many classical ballerinas have crossed into contemporary work but none with such eager comprehension and blistering charisma as our Sylvie. Barriers dissolve as she turns up. Notched on Guillem’s gardening spade would be the names of William Forsythe, Mats Ek, Russell Maliphant, Akram Khan, Jonathan Burrows, Maurice Béjart, Mary Wigman, Agnes de Mille and Rudolf Nureyev as well as classical and neo-classical choreographers. The range in style is enormous.

guillem rearrayThis programme premiered two years ago, soon after the Japanese tsunami disaster that it is named for, and Guillem is even more astonishing (at 48) than before, not a trace less whip-fit and elegant than she appears in the video below, more than half her lifetime ago.

Three works, three major names: Jiri Kylian, Forsythe, Ek. She dances the second and third, though why she has clung to this particular Kylian on the programme I don't understand, its vapidity quite foreign to the effect of the rest.

English National Ballet just performed a marginally better work of his, Petite Mort. More about pose than choreography, 27' 52" is seen in extract, a strung-out duet for half-clad man and woman (and carpet), in which there appears to be a theme of running phrases forward and backward. You hear this in the voice-overs (French and German) - I wondered if reverse mechanics explained the awkwardness of some of the choreography.

The girl, Aurélie Cayla, takes her red vest off and bares her breasts, and from then your reading of the vehement duetting is likely to alter as skin meets skin.

That titbit over, we’re onto the real matter: two terrific Guillem tributes by two choreographers who totally get her soaring measure. Broadly, Forsythe’s is brain, Ek’s is heart, but both are seated in soul and imagination, and each in its own way feels like a specific portrait of this specific dancer.

Forsythe’s Rearray seemed to me in 2011 the most thrilling piece of new choreography I saw that year, and I’m still transfixed by its faithfulness to classical ballet, its amusing postmodernism, and the cracking technical workout it gives to Guillem and her partner. Originally that was Nicolas Le Riche, and I miss his granite masculine assurance and the pair's complicit Paris Opéra understanding, but La Scala’s Massimo Murru brings his own, more friendly style, not least an impressively full and long ponytail.

Her feet spring inside their socks into that familiar, extreme arch, so feline in their microscopic control of balance, turn, jet-propulsionLittle bites of dance take place, cut off by black-outs, which snatch up fragments of barre exercise - ports de bras, développés, attitudes - and expand them into haikus of dense, delicious ballet dancing. Sometimes Guillem and Murru are together, sometimes alone, and the wavering half-light deceives your eyes, while David Morrow’s Berg-like music brushes the ears like twigs against a window in the night. They dance in grey jeans and socks, inside which her feet spring into that familiar, extreme arch, so feline in their microscopic control of balance, turn, jet-propulsion.

For sure, other dancers raised in the Guillem era could execute this in liquidity and elasticity, but none with such redoubtable, magical rigour, with such instinctive grip of the satisfying geometry of 90 degree arabesque, upright stance, and - thereby - with such a dramatically charged 180-degree vertical line. It’s the austere intellect dancing, it’s Merce Cunningham on speed, but this pared-down Guillem also radiates a witchy hint of mischief, flickering her leg up to the sky alluringly and snatching it back down again.

Ek, by contrast, winkled out something unexpectedly domestic in the ballerina when he created Bye for her. Even wearing hideous purple and mustard granny clothing and a badly cut hair-do, Guillem exercises her spell. A video door opens memories for her, of family, a man, a dog, while Ivo Pogorelich on CD plays a surprisingly restrained finale from the Beethoven Op 111 piano sonata.

Bye is flat-out sentimental, but she adds lemon to it by her quirky attitude. She’s dolefully funny, doing handstands, leaping in anger, sagging in rueful resignation, reliving excruciating moments. The bare legs are harshly lit, the close-up on her face is intended to show us her age. She is heartbreakingly good. How lucky to have been around to see Guillem these past 20 years, how much more alive dance has become, due to her argumentative, revelatory work ethic and personality.

Guillem dancing William Forsythe's in the middle, somewhat elevated at Paris Opera Ballet with Laurent Hilaire

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Comments

This is one of the most wonderful reviews I have ever read and a magnicicent tribute to Sylvie"s incomparable gifts as a dancer. True thanks to her passion, artistic integrity, her intelligence and total commitment to her art and her audience, not to mention her curiosity to find new ways of expression, dancing has become a much more fascinating and truly alive field that I had ever thought it to be whether it was seing her dancing her exquisite princess Aurora in "Sleeping Beauty", her passionate "Giselle", her fascinating enfant-terrible Juliet or her heartbreaking "Manon", dancing Bejart ( a dream within a dream in "la Luna", to name an example) or Forsythe or Mats Ek. That range knows no limits and it does prove that in the presence of a dancer of genius like Sylvie, art and beauty have no limits at all. By the way from June 10th to June 13th Sylvie will be dancing William Forsythe"s "Steptext" during an evening dedicated on great choreographers at the Teatro Communale in Florence, Italy.

This was a truly electrifying and life enhancing performance by Sylvie Guillem at the astonishing age of 48. I didn't however find the Kylian piece as vapid as Ismene and there is sometimes something liberating when dancers move naked (well semi anyway) unencumbered by the constrictions of leotards. The technical precision of Forsythe's Rearray was breath taking but I can't agree about David Murrow's score, Berg it was not and I felt it flattened out the emotional and dynamic range of the piece. Not so much twigs against a window more like fingers scraped across a blackboard. I don't usually go for humour or cuteness in dance but somehow Bye had this and a whole lot more and Sylvie made the piece her own, the sign of a real artist. Credit should also go to both the costume designers and lighting designers whose contributions were particularly crucial when you have so few dancers working in such a large space. I felt I might have been privileged to see this performance at this stage in Sylvie Guillem's career.

I am also less harsh than Ismene on the Kylian piece which seems to fit to the ensemble and the dancers are wonderful. It does not seem to have the same weight as the other pieces, but this is also due to the inevitable comparisons with the two other choreographies by Forsythe and Ek which benefit from Sylvie"s incomparable presence. At any rate, from what I understood Sylvie had asked the three choreographers to do a choreography for her and Forsythe and Ek responded positively. Only Kylian refused to do so (although at some point he was willing to do a filmed choreography with Sylvie but for various reasons it did not work out) and I believe it was he who was responsible for the choice of that particular piece for "6000 miles away".

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