techne. Sylvie Guillem. Photo by Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem. ‘Life in Progress’

19 August 2015, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Sylvie Guillem is an extraordinary dancer, no doubt about it, and her farewell show of four very different works demonstrated her astonishing capacity as a performer. But what emerged most clearly for me was that Guillem is first and foremost a ballet dancer. Her body, with its flexibility, slender frame, beautifully arched feet, impeccable ‘turn-out’, and limbs that extend seemingly forever, is so perfectly suited to the vocabulary of ballet that, whatever other dance style she is performing, she makes me long to see her dancing in a ballet again. Guillem has, for the last ten years or so, focused on contemporary dance and, while I have every respect for her desire to work that way, it is a little sad that not all of the movement we see in her farewell show does justice to her qualities as a dancer.

The program opened with technê choreographed by Akram Khan. Its setting was instantly attractive—a silver mesh tree positioned centre stage and surrounded by a circle of light. Across the upstage area sat a dimly-lit orchestra of three, composer Alies Sluiter (voice, laptop and violin), Prathap Ramachandra (percussion), and Grace Savage (beatbox). And the live soundscape they produced was thrilling.

But, watching Guillem emerge from the darkness in the opening moments—our first sight of her—only to scuttle around the circle of light on all fours like an insect was not thrilling. Sure she scuttles brilliantly and every inch of her body scuttled. But for me it was an uninspired opening moment and it was hard to maintain interest in the movement of technê from then on.

Then followed William Forsythe’s DUO2015, remade from his 1996 DUO and danced by two men, Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, to a very sparse score by Thom Willems. They danced together and apart, at times with panache and bravura, and sometimes with a kind of throwaway attitude. It was a communication between friends. They sometimes mirrored each other in their movements, and at other times they maintained their differences—a diverse dancing communication, and a wonderful one.

DUO web. Dancers Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts. Photo by Carl Fox

 Dancers Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in DUO2015. Photo: © Carl Fox

The last piece before intermission was another duet, Here & After, this time danced by two women, Guillem and Emanuela Montanari. Choreographed by Russell Maliphant to music by Andy Cowton, it was pleasant dancing, often sculptural and having a light touch towards the end when the Cowton score included the sounds of a yodelling voice. It was enhanced by a strong lighting design from Michael Hulls, a constantly changing chessboard of squares of light. It added a hard-edged quality that sat well against the softness of the choreography.

By far the most satisfying piece, however, was the closing item, Bye, with choreography by Mats Ek and danced to Beethoven’s Arietta from his Piano Sonata Opus 111. The choice of music was an inspired one given its position in Beethoven’s oeuvre, Opus 111 being his last piano sonata, and given the inventive nature of the Arietta within it.

Sylvie Guillem in 'Bye'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem in Bye. Photo: © Bill Cooper

In Bye we first see Guillem peering through a keyhole of a door positioned upstage, which eventually becomes a screen for the projection of filmed images of people and animals. As Guillem emerges from behind this door/screen and begins to dance, Ek’s choreographic style is instantly recognisable. Guillem crosses the stage with long, loping walks, shoulders slightly hunched and head pushed forward. From then on she engages in a variety of moves that often seem to be an examination of the world, including one quiet moment when she stands on the side of the stage and surveys the space. At one point she stands on her head, legs spread in a kind of upside down 2nd position plié. Finally, she joins a growing crowd of men, women, children and dogs who appear in film on the door/screen. In the closing moments she joins them and walks into the distance.

Life in Progress was an interesting experience, and it certainly made me more than aware of Guillem’s astonishing abilities. But I would rather watch beetles scuttle and a clown stand on his (or her) head and watch Guillem dancing a ballet. I feel very lucky to have seen her during her ballet days and, in particular, will always carry with me treasured memories of the most moving Giselle I have ever seen—Guillem’s own production (with Guillem in the lead) for Finnish National Ballet in Paris in 2001.

Bye. Or is it au revoir?

Michelle Potter, 22 August 2015

Featured image: Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan’s technê. Photo: © Bill Cooper

‘Giselle’ in the news

It seems that the Australian Ballet will be bringing back Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle in 2015. Gielgud’s web page indicates that she will be in Australia from late 2014, firstly teaching in Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne and then working on staging Giselle for the Australian Ballet.

This news sent me looking at some of my favourite, easily available online images from Giselle. I didn’t have the opportunity to see Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov in the Ballet Victoria production of 1975. But some of my favourite Giselle photos come from that production, an amazing event when one considers that Makarova defected in 1970 and Baryshnikov did so in 1974 and here they were in Australia in 1975 so early in their careers in the West. Walter Stringer’s photos are often slightly blurry but I think he has captured something of the quality of the performance.

Mikhail Baryshnikov as Albrecht in 'Giselle', Ballet Victoria 1975. Photo: Walter Stringer

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova in Giselle, Ballet Victoria  1975. Photos: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

In the meantime, Graeme Murphy has been in South Korea workshopping a new version of Giselle. It seems that we won’t see this production in Australia, at least not in the short term. The idea of a Murphy reworking is tantalising and I can’t help wondering why a ballet company in South Korea had the prescience to commission it rather than the Australian Ballet.

I love to see a high quality ‘traditional’ version and still sigh over the Paris Opera Ballet’s production we saw in Australia in 2012. But the most moving production I have ever seen was created by Sylvie Guillem in 1998 for the Finnish National Ballet, which I saw in 2001. On the surface it certainly wasn’t a traditional Giselle, as the photo below indicates, although anyone familiar in the slightest degree with the ballet will recognise the dance sequence from Act I shown here. Below the surface though, I found that not only did it pull at the heart strings but it was deeply and intellectually satisfying as well.

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in Giselle, 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

I wrote about the Guillem Giselle in 2001 for Brolga, then an old-fashioned print journal. I declined to give permission for it to be digitised by Ausdance when they began digitising back issues, but here is a section from it.

Guillem as producer and choreographer (after Coralli-Perrot-Petipa according to the program), reconceived the ballet according to her wish for it to be a work that would evoke both the past and the present, and that would be meaningful to contemporary audiences. In program notes she stated:

‘Giselle’s story is a timeless one. To die of love, not so much for a man as for loss of love. Naturally the texts by Théophile Gautier and Heinrich Heine clearly laid down the basic intentions. Over the years, these intentions have been buried beneath set choreographic habits, mainly with regard to gesture, thereby becoming a sort of incoherent language expected to “speak” the story … I wanted to rediscover Giselle and make the blood flow again in the veins of the various protagonists’.*

And elsewhere she is quoted as saying: ‘Even if Giselle hadn’t had a heart attack, the ballet was dying by itself. It was becoming more and more stupid, without any sense’.**

Strong words from Guillem. We know the Gielgud production. As for the Murphy version … we will have to wait.

Michelle Potter, 15 June 2014

NOTES:

* Sylvie Guillem, ‘Waiting for curtain-up’. Program for Giselle, Théâtre du Chatelet, Paris 2000–2001, p. 12.

**Debra Crane, ‘Made for fame’. Dance Now, vol. 9 (No. 4, Winter 2000–2001), p. 16.

I am working on making available in full my article from Brolga and will include it in my dance diary for June.