Ever-youthful Sylvie Guillem dances with fluency and emotional awareness

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Sylvie Guillem, 6000 miles away: Sylvie Guillem and dancers in choreography by William Forsythe, Jiří Kylián and Mats Ek. Sadler’s Wells, London, 22.9.11. (JPr)


Sylvie Guillem in 'Bye' (c) Sadlers Wells

A day after this year’s London Fashion Week ended one of the world’s most famous Parisiennes was cavorting on a stage in the plainest looking outfits and apparently without makeup. This French woman is in fact a ballerina and that she is so recognisable by many – some of whom will perhaps have never even seen her perform – is as much due to Sylvie Guillem’s incredible talent and career, as it is the strength of her personality. Her three-choreographer evening, 6000 miles away, returned to Sadler’s Wells – and then sets off on an international tour – after its sold-out run in July. Guillem’s meteoric rise at the Paris Opera Ballet under Nureyev’s tutelage is well documented, at only 23 and already assured of what she could offer the ballet world she left them to begin a memorable 17 years as ‘principal guest artist’ at the Royal Ballet, as well as, guesting internationally and beginning significant collaborations with many diverse artists. She has been an artistic associate at Sadler’s Wells since 2006, and there have been a number of previous collaborations there with Russell Maliphant, Akram Khan and Robert Lepage.

The title 6000 miles away is Guillem’s tribute to the Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in March this year and she danced two specially commissioned works from William Forsythe and Mats Ek, choreographers she has had long association with and these were performed either side of what must have been an reduced version of Jiří Kylián’s 27’52” (that was premièred in 2002) that I understand gets its title from the original length of the piece, though it was much shorter here.

Much is made Sylvie Guillem’s age and there are even some comments that she is dancing on borrowed time – but why in the twenty-first century need this be a subject for discussion? Of course ballet, of all art forms, is a hard taskmaster (or mistress) and many bodies have to be remodelled to carry out movement that joints were not evolved to manage with ease. Historically women have out-lasted their male equivalents, though the Royal Ballet still seems to ignore its best dancers once they reach 40. When this happened to Sylvie Guillem she just moved on again and still attracts packed houses for contemporary dance evenings such as this, though it is interesting to know that she recently revisited one of her signature roles, Manon, at La Scala Milan. Truthfully with her stick-thin physique and long limbs – and a technique employing the security and flexibility of the gymnast she was when much younger – Guillem’s longevity is probably more due to genetics than hardwork … but we all know how much of that is involved too. Although the works she danced were choreographed for her there was no stinting on the challenges she was set and Guillem is so brilliant that even the merest hint of an off-balance wobble (seen once the entire evening) comes as a shock.

Guillem dances William Forsythe’s Rearray with La Scala favourite, Massimo Murru; they are both in rehearsal clothes and are very enthralling in a very spare, often intimate, duet. It is performed on a bare stage that is often dimly-lit and there is a percussively atonal and fragmented score by David Morrow. It all starts with them facing the audience and Guillem’s first actions hint at ballet barre work; knees move inwards and outwards and she sweeps an arm over her head. Both then go on and impress with the flow and continuity of their movement through solos and duets. Sometimes Guillem and her choreographer seem to be exploring fading ballet memories of times past, yet the circling of the dancers around each other often had the hypnotic stalking quality of Praying Mantises during their mating ritual.

Jiří Kylián’s 27’52” was well danced by the former Nederlands Dans Theater members Aurélie Cayla and Kenta Kojiri. Again the stage is bare apart from a couple of dark stage-wide strips of carpet under which the dancers conceal themselves, especially at the end. ‘Bare’ also refers to the dancers who are both topless for most of the time. This is an intense other-worldly, angst driven piece with much to-ing and fro-ing, pushing and pulling, catching and holding, to an electronic score by Dirk Haubrich presented alongside texts spoken in a number of languages. This score is supposed to be based on two themes by Mahler though they were well-hidden to my ears but there just may have been a hint of the opening of his First Symphony and the last bars of Das Lied von der Erde.

Finally Mat Ek’s solo, Bye, was danced by Guillem to the last movement of Beethoven’s final piano sonata, Opus 111 in a plangent recording by Ivo Pogorelich. She is dowdily dressed in purple-patterned shirt and mustard yellow skirt but this frumpy costuming only seemed to enhance the impact of her movement. There were a variety of geometric shapes of light on the stage floor and it featured wonderfully coordinated interplay with ‘black and white’ videography (by Elias Benxon) projected on a door-shaped screen. Again it is a window on another world – and is part another time-stream (as in a recent Dr Who episode on BBC TV) and part the antics in the famous ‘Mirror Sketch’ from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. (If you are too young, look it up on YouTube).

This was a very accessible work and I might be accused of making it seem more meaningful than it is as I initially thought about the fragmentary memories of dementia and a slightly dotty woman regressing into happier past-times. Before the sentimental ending where Guillem withdraws ‘through the looking glass’ to join ‘her’ family the moves seem to become more youthful and fluent. The near-constant movement (including headstands) should be strenuous but Sylvie Guillem makes it seems effortless and imbues its all-pervading whimsy – as with everything she dances – with true emotional awareness and typical heart and soul. If she wants to – and she maintains her fitness – there is every expectation that we might be seeing her perform 10 years from now.

Finally, I have to address ‘the ‘Black Swan in the room’ concerning this event and that is its very short length. However wonderful it was to see this great artist, I did worry about the audience having to pay upwards of £45 for three very short ballets (four dancers, no musicians and little or no scenery) during an evening that began after 7.30pm and with a lengthy pause and interval finished not long after 9pm. It was sold out in July and appears a sell-out now – so who am I to say what the audience wants?

Jim Pritchard


For forthcoming dance events at Sadler’s Wells visit http://www.sadlerswells.com/.