Sylvie Guillem – Life in Progress

Choreography by Akram Khan, William Forsythe, Russell Maliphant, Mats Ek
Sadler's Wells

Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan's technê Credit: Bill Cooper
Emanuela Montanari and Sylvie Guillem in Russell Maliphant's Here and After Credit: Bill Cooper
Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek's Bye Credit: Bill Cooper
Sylvie Guillem Credit: Lesley Leslie-Spinks

How do you say goodbye to an illustrious career which encompasses some thirty-five years (thirty-nine years at the barre, she says) of both classical and contemporary dance?

With a flashback to flashy highlights? With fireworks? That is not the Sylvie Guillem way: she never did go down the conventional route.

Independent-spirited to the last, she has co-produced an unostentatious, low-key if intense farewell programme to end a chapter in her life, but her life will go on, still a Life in Progress.

It is not over yet: touring globally till the end of the year in this her fiftieth year she is pacing herself. And leaving an imprint of a God-given, honed, lithe body, perfect arched feet and an intelligent mind as well as a Zen-like dedication to her art.

Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant pick up on this last quality: their new works, about twenty minutes each, are very similar to each other down to mood, tone and musical qualities.

Khan’s technê, from the Greek τέχνη meaning craft, skill, ‘knowledge based in practice’, seems to reach into the past whilst being very much in the present.

A round, tilted platform—a planet sliced in half; a solitary computer-generated silvery mesh 3D tree; and a body exploring its own possibilities. Musicians onstage create a mysterious soundscape. The lighting (Adam Carrée and Lucy Carter) is dark.

The beginning of creation, evolution from slinky lizard to praying mantis to walking tall and performing like a goddess or temple dancer, fluid arms, eager fingers, Guillem embraces it all, as she graces and caresses the stage.

In Here and After, Maliphant’s quoted purpose is to look to Guillem’s past whilst stretching her in a new female duet with Emanuela Montanari from La Scala Milan.

Andy Cowton’s electro-acoustic hum of the spheres barely disrupts the religious silence. Michael Hulls’s grids of light chase the women in their complicit tensions. Controlled, moody, suggestive, mirror images, the godhead split in two.

A rite of passage turns into a computer game, they the avatars. The tempo changes, arms and legs are mechanical levers, bodies complex machines, the light brighter: is this the imprint that will be left behind, the reverberation of a career given to perfecting movement?

Separating these two new works, William Forsythe’s 1996 Duo danced by two men, Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, is a fifteen-minute breather for Guillem, but, as it is captivates, one wishes she’d included herself in an extract from Forsythe’s In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated.

Thom Willems’s ‘serial tonal sequences’ as light as breath barely impinge on the deconstructed balletic moves. A simple gesture, a sculptural pose can be the most beautiful sight—no need for pyrotechnics.

In front of a black curtain on a bare stage, in rehearsal baggy vests and tracksuit bottoms, the two men investigate oh so softly and in duplicate the beauty of ballet’s components, the grace of hands, arms, shoulders, feet, limbs—the beauty of the kinetic body.

After the interval comes Mats Ek’s Bye—what else could be more appropriate and more poignant, encapsulating a life on stage in twenty-two essential minutes?

A face looks out at the world from a portal to which it will have to return inevitably one day, but in the meantime, let’s get out there and play. Shoes and socks off, Guillem delights in her facility to move, the stage her playground.

Shoes and socks back on she joins the people (and dog) on the other side, melts away in the monochrome crowd, leaving the world of colour behind. One last glance and she is gone. But what will remain is love.

On the day the queen’s carriage to the opening of parliament causes gridlock on the streets of London, so the exquisite carriage of the supreme queen of dance brings gridlock to Sadler’s Wells. Her loyal audience salutes her with a standing ovation.

Paris Opera Ballet étoile, Principal Guest Artist at the Royal Ballet and Tokyo Ballet, iconic roles in ballets by Kenneth MacMillan, Maurice Béjart, Frederick Ashton, William Forsythe and Mats Ek, Sadler's Wells Associate Artist since 2006, now Associate Artist Emeritus, a major force in the world of dance bows out with impeccable modesty.

Reviewer: Vera Liber