Sylvie Guillem is an extraordinary creature: exuding a special aura yet blessed with the common touch. She has almost always been this way, the ordinary (little or no makeup, bare legs in ballet) mixed with the extraordinary (her technique, her corporeal expressiveness); the anti-diva who can be diva-ish. It is a fascinating and winning combination, there is nothing obvious about what she does, she is surprising, you never know what's going to come next. Kitri, animal rights, veganism, Mats Ek, environmentalism, pointe shoes…. all rolled into one lithe package called Sylvie Guillem.
This is what we got at Genoa: all the contrasts which make her who she is… and she's honest to the bone. No more so than in Mat Eks's Bye, created for her in 2011. It starts with a projected black and white close-up of her eye, not flatteringly lit and rigorously without makeup. As the camera pans back, her frumpy outfit is revealed which, when the ‘real' Guillem emerges from behind the screen, it is seen to consist of a moss-green cardy, pink woolly socks, a mustard coloured skirt and a patterned metallic-brown blouse. Quite revolting if by now it hadn't become so iconic. Having seen photos of this costume so many times over the past few years it now, somehow, seems almost chic. Classic Guillem: it's not about me, it's about the dance.
It is, though, all about her. From this unpromising physical mess come grand jetés and the six o'clock leg, sinewy twisting, stretching and bending. But she also clenches her fists, stands on her head, and walks around like a sulky child. Careful observers will also spot some references to famous ballet poses.
When she is drawn back into the screen to join her projected family? her friends? the human race? we realise that this moment on the stage – to play, explore, learn – was an interlude; you have your time, then you must leave… Bye.
Akram Khan's piece, which opens the evening, isn't called ‘Hello' but technê. According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, technê means “craft of life, based on an understanding of the universe”. Like Bye there seems to be a story here.
Opening with a mystical soundscape and a black void, a silver wire tree is slowly illuminated and moments later, a scuttling Guillem zigzags the stage on her haunches, her thighs seeming to beat like wings. Her nervousness and uncomfortableness are at contrast with the serene solidness of the tree (the tree of life?) and the calming musical throb of the universe. Khan lets her explore some strangely odd movements during which the ‘creature' appears to evolve.
Live musicians are upstage behind a gauze as though gods observing their creation. As the light on the tree slowly dims, it glows bronze then gold. Guillem rises to her feet… calm, wondering, caressing the tree, finding a oneness with her environment. It is a simple yet magical moment.
While Guillem has a breather (drying off and changing costume), two dancers from William Forsythe's company perform his Duo, with the magnificently flexible Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts. It is fiendishly complex sequence of slick and rapid movements. Sometimes they mimic each other, sometimes in mirror image, occasionally they provoke each other as in a playful duel, and every now and then, there is a moment of calm. It has a hypnotic ebb and flow. Mesmerising.
Here & After, sees Guillem with the La Scala soloist Emanuela Montanari. Guillem wanted such a piece in the programme, as she's never danced with a female partner. It's now or never. Rather like Forsythe's piece, Russell Maliphant often has the two women performing the same movements side by side, rarely touching.
Just when you think that this is it, suddenly it changes gear and the two separate, moving out across the stage through Michael Hulls's shifting columns of light, Guillem even gets to propel the lifts instead of being on the receiving end. It is a seductive piece with two bravura performances.
Life in Progress is the name of the programme, and certainly, Guillem will not being sitting at home making patchwork quilts during her retirement. She's had her time on stage, now it's time for something different. One imagines the choice for her to stop dancing was a logical and therefore fairly easy one, I mean she IS Madame Non, isn't she? Maybe she was, but she is every bit as vulnerable as the dancer on stage. In an interview for the Telegraph a couple of months ago, she said,
I don't know if I will be able to cope with the decision I have made. But still, it has to end.
But that vulnerable dancer also has an impressive grand jeté remember. In her programme notes she writes,
Also, I have a friend, a sleeper agent, to whom I gave a ‘licence to kill' in case I tried to continue longer than I should! And frankly, I'd like to spare him this task.
With her intelligence, humour and compassion, we may be saying ‘bye' to the dancer, but certainly not to Sylvie Guillem.
Sylvie Guillem: Life in Progress – Genoa, Italy, 5 July 2015
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.
Thanks for the as ever thoughtful and evocative review. One can only hope that more of Guillem and her choreographers’ works show up on DVD. I do wish there were full-length “Eonaggata” especially. Yes, I am sure we will see more of Guillem’s creativity in other forms, though I wonder if she will reverse course and dance again like Ms. Ferri. I just recently “discovered” for myself Marie-Claude Pietragalla who has/had a career just like Ms. Guillem–superb in classical ballet and stunning in contemporary dance. I wonder if there is a connection between them.