Every time I have to write about Sylvie Guillem I find it extremely difficult, how does one put in words the outcome of an evening with such a wonderful and sensory overload. How can I do justice to a true wonder of our times.
To experience Guillem live is to be part of something very special, a true fusion of art, spirituality and curiosity. My first ever live exposure to her art was at the Nureyev gala at The Royal Opera House back in 2003. She danced the pas des deux In the Middle Somewhat Elevated which was specially created for her while she was an etoile at the Paris Opera Ballet by William Forsythe. Last night it was almost a rekindling of those feelings and admiration that she generated almost a decade ago.
The programme was as follows:
The evening’s start, the new piece by Forsythe, Rearray was an interesting confection. The stage was set up in what it looked like a well-worn dance studio in shades of dark grey with a bar attached to the wall. Guillem and Le Riche did not use that back wall in any way, it seemed that Forsythe chose to carve the relationship of the two characters with the use of dramatic, lighting that subdivided the action and fragmented the narrative. The dim lighting which was the main phase of the scheme was highlighting the fast movement of the choreography and especially Guillem’s velvet smooth arm and hand gestures created shapes not unlike light pen drawings that Picasso made all the rage back in the 1940s. Almost 3d calligraphy and an exploration of the bodies of the two dancers intertwining and at times mirroring each other’s aerial shape making. The piece did not have too many lifts or too much body contact. The two dancers retold abstract episodes with the lights dimming and going off creating a buffer from one episode to another.
The general mood of the piece was warm mainly generated by the clear familiarity of the two dancers, they both go back to their Paris Opera days being both hand-picked by Nureyev and showing a very particular brand of elegant step marking and physicality. Forsythe used very effectively Le Riche’s imposing physique and his equally powerful delivery is a perfect foil for Sylvie’s fluid delivery, almost a tree against an overflowing river. He accentuated the very sensitivity of Guillem’s dancing that is one of its more distinctive features. Against a less masculine partner she could have easily dominated with her gymnast proportions. She has mentioned in recent interviews that she asked Forsythe to not scale back his requirements but to try and stretch her capabilities. Surely most of the pacing is exhausting and makes her command the stage in her very unique way. Forsythe knows her well and Rearray lives in the mind, a day later it has grown more and more. One sour aspect for me was the music accompaniment (by David Morrow) a particular brand of post modern cacophony that contemporary choreographers seem to be perennially in love with. It wasn’t terribly inspired and I usually find a clash between a found piece of music with a new dance work is a great combination.
The second piece by Jiří Kylián (27’52”) was a much more hands on affair between the two dancers. With some extraordinary scenes of tense exchange between the two protagonists. With long lengths of grey rubber, pliable flooring material covering the dancers from time to time creating a separating layer was an interesting addition. The piece had an undercurrent of trauma and violence a true contrast to what came before. Aurelie Cayla removed her red flowing top after a terse exchange and lied immobile on the floor for the next few minutes allowing Kojiri to dance a triumphant solo. A disquieting middle point in the choreography where her exposed torso becomes a lifeless prop for relentless shaking and bending. It was arresting with its ferocious rhythms and Mahlerian musical themes weaving a spunky full-on narrative. Really appreciated at that point the brief interval to catch some fresh air and wonder what Mats Ek would do with one of his top muses!
Bye was a thirty minute solo for Guillem starting behind a projection screen (with a whimsical extreme close-up) she climbs up it trying to make it through to the stage. Almost a flashback from some extraordinary visual effects they employed for her last Sadler’s Wells outing two years ago with Eonnagata. This time round it was employed in a much more humorous way. She relished appearing in surely the most frumpy stage outfit any dancer would ever wear. A mustard coloured skirt with a purple patterned shirt, a green cardigan and a pair of pink pop socks (that she quickly removes alongside her shoes and dances barefoot). She seemed to be portraying a homely figure on stage with a rather cooky sense of joie de vivre…she made all too clear with three headstands where she created a Y shape and held with sheer excitement.
The piece had Sylvie’s signature high kicks and mesmerizing fluidity. The projections on the door-like opening continue throughout the work with some live video of her stretched on the floor, almost in a simulation of a full body photocopying process. Her in sync and out of sync movements on the screen both mirrored the action and frozen the narrative into a purely aesthetic product. When things turned “too pretty” a man appears on-screen that is clearly looking for her and followed by a sweet docile family dog (which caused a lot of laughter in the auditorium) which was followed by a huge family looking at her dancing. The humour and Guillem’s magnetic presence was clearly the core of the piece. Almost a glimpse of a more domestic Sylvie that lifts her everyday life with humorous posing and a few playful headstands? It was endearing and heartfelt, the kind of piece that hits one’s heart straight on. She was dancing to the Arietta from Beethoven’s last piano sonata Op.111 as played by Ivo Pogorelich. As a certain (wonderful) pianist said to me it was a very dull piece and he’s milking its dullness but this was exactly the right piece for the occasion. She elevated the pretty straight-laced music into an extraordinary conversation. The movement both following the sound but also adding meaning and tenderness.
All in all it was moving, it was intelligent, it was skilful. A great evening out with arguably the greatest ballerina of our times.
PS it was a rather funny audience on the night a mix of ex dancers, assorted musicians (including Stephen Hough on front row) a mother with her 10-year-old son and a biker in full leather gear that brought his helmet in the auditorium! Not the kind of audience one would see at the Coliseum or the Royal Opera House which got me thinking about how different dance audiences are to opera ones! One interesting extra thing was how the performance started, with the lights still on the curtain opened and Le Riche and Guillem stood immobile in the darkened stage quietly silencing the loud chatting audience an effective and engaging start to a memorable evening. I will be seeing it again in September, will make sure to add any more observations to this piece if need be.
Sylvie Guillem was awarded the Outstanding Female Performance (Modern) prize for 6.000 Miles Away at the The 12th (The Critics’ Circle) National Dance Awards in London on 23 January 2012.
With the upcoming return of Guillem to Sadler’s Wells the Guardian has put online some filmed excerpts from 6.000 miles away.