Life In Progress: Sylvie Guillem

After an extraordinary 39 year career, covering great works and breaking new ground in ballet and contemporary dance, Sylvie Guillem made the decision to retire on the year of her 50th birthday. Life In Progress is a farewell programme which includes two new works by Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant created especially for Guillem. As the title suggests, Life In Progress is about continuations rather than abrupt endings and Guillem demonstrates this by giving herself new challenges rather than return to much visited works (Guillem has never shied away from new and daring experiences such as leaving the Royal Ballet for contemporary dance at Sadler’s Wells in 2003).

Akram Khan’s new work techne opens Life in Progress with a solo Guillem and a rotating multifaceted tree sculpture centre stage. Musicians on percussion and laptops are barely visible in the background like ghostly apparitions. Guillem’s body achieves what appears to be the supernatural as it encircles the tree with dexterity and strength - crouching down yet on tip toes which rapidly stab the ground like a ferocious typewriter. Throughout techne, Guillem combines excellent physical skill with a unique and powerful sense of vulnerability which no amount of training could teach anybody else.         

Duo, by William Forsythe, is reworked for two male dancers. The dance in Duo is brought to the forefront by making other elements barely there  - regular practice wear takes the place of complimentary costumes and most of the performance is undertaken with silence with strings flowing in and out at irregular points. Sometimes all you can hear are the breaths of the performers which seem natural yet choreographed with each flowing gesture. Synchronised yet independent movements seamlessly switch to abrupt, and often comic, separations before the two are joined together again to form a single entity.  

Russell Maliphant’s Here & After, another premiere on the programme, features Guillem in her first duet with a woman. Shrouded in dark patterned lighting, Guillem and partner’s figures create a single obscure one before they gradually part and the stage lightens to an orange glow . Interactions between the two women move from gentle cooperation to sharp conflict and back again. Quotations from previous Guillem and Maliphant collaborations play. The really striking recording played is breathing - quiet short breaths that increase in volume and played faster in succession. Here & After finishes with Guillem and partner cartoonishly strolling off together into the distance, the dark closing in behind them.

Life In Progress closes with Mats Ek’s Bye which puts Guillem back dancing solo. Bye is largely comedic with a touch of sadness. A video projection of a life size door remains in the background throughout. A hazy black and white Guillem peers through it before real life limbs jut out from behind the screen as if she’s between two worlds. As Guillem dances and contorts with childlike playfulness, random monochrome figures including a rather cute dog stand in the doorway watching. At one point real life Guillem and her projected counterpart simultaneously echo each other - the same yet different. Bye closes with Guillem collecting her suitcase and joining a sea of people that now await her through the door. After enthusiastic waving Guillem’s image disappears into the crowds - a moving end for an original and incredible swansong that could never be matched. Guillem finishes her career on a perfect high.   

Until 31st May at Sadler's Wells.

28 July - 2nd August at London Coliseum

8th-10th August at Edinburgh International Festival


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