Mats Ek + Ana Laguna. Baryshnikov Arts Centre Digital Program

This digital stream from New York’s Baryshnikov Arts Centre gives such a beautiful look at two dancers, Mats Ek now in his seventies, and Ana Laguna a little younger in her sixties. Both have had stellar dance careers and have worked across the world and in varied areas of dance, including artistic direction. In this inspiring program, however, we meet them in their summer home in northern Sweden, where they spent many months, including wintery months, in isolation to escape the pandemic. They each perform a solo, with both solos choreographed by Ek, and they speak throughout the film with dance writer and critic Jann Parry.

Ek’s solo is called Whilst, or Medans in Swedish, and is danced to music, La gondole lugubre II, by Franz Liszt. It is a solo in the sense that Ek is the sole dancer, but it might also be called a duet for Ek and a chair. Ek enters and sits on a chair, which we have seen in the performing space from the opening moment. His movements are quite simple to begin with and express a certain amount of boredom or frustration associated with being isolated. He looks at his wrist where a watch would usually be, he runs his hands along his limbs, he crosses and uncrosses his legs. Then the chair becomes part of the movement until it is eventually pushed aside and we watch a freer style of movement, fluid and covering a little more space, and always strongly and precisely performed. He makes a brief escape through a door into another room, but returns and ends standing by a window looking out, perhaps wistfully, perhaps hopefully.

Laguna’s solo is called My Letter, or Mitt Brev in Swedish, and is performed to sections of a Cello Suite by J. S Bach. It revolves around the receipt of a letter and we see a variety of emotions from Laguna, shown brilliantly on her body through Ek’s choreography There is anxiety, there is excitement, there is surprise and perhaps confusion, and finally there is huge pleasure as Laguna finishes the solo standing at window with light pouring into the room as she reads the letter. I loved her fast movements of arms and feet, so full of excitement, and the beautifully fluid bends of the upper body as the arms lifted skywards.

But there is surprise for us the audience too. The letter is at first a blank piece of paper and Laguna handles the letter in various ways, including stuffing it into her mouth. There is even a moment when we wonder if Laguna is about to slit her throat with the letter opener she has used earlier in the piece. But she doesn’t and when she puts the letter opener back in a drawer words have mysteriously appeared on the previously blank sheet of paper.

What follows is a discussion led by Parry with contributions from Laguna and picked up towards the end by Ek. I am not always a fan of hearing what choreographers say their work is about. It so often resonates of that (now old fashioned) concept of intentional fallacy. But the Parry/Laguna/Ek conversation was illuminating. Ek as choreographer didn’t try to tell us what My Letter was about, and why the writing appeared at the end, other than to say simply ‘The letter is written by her dance.’ So it makes sense that we see the writing only when the dance is completed. And given the growing number of groups of older dancers we now have the pleasure of seeing quite often, the discussion of dancing with an ageing body was also illuminating with talk about ‘accepting the limits of an ageing body’ and ‘choosing what is possible’. What an amazing pair of artists they are.

Mats Ek + Ana Laguna is available to watch online until 14 October 2021 via the Baryshnikov Arts Centre website. It is so well worth watching

(Please note: Image above is not a link)

Michelle Potter, 8 October 2021

Featured image: Ana Laguna performing in My letter. Photo: Baryshnikov Arts Centre.

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.

Dancers Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in 'DUO2015'. 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

techne. Sylvie Guillem. Photo by Bill Cooper