Steely superstar's swan song

Sylvie Guillem has carved out a career spanning 39 years with individuality and insouciance.
Sylvie Guillem has carved out a career spanning 39 years with individuality and insouciance. PHOTO: THE ESPLANADE

Sylvie Guillem's body is unimaginably supple, garnering a standing ovation

There are very few who attain superstar status in dance - the great partners Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, the charismatic Mikhail Baryshnikov and the unparalleled Sylvie Guillem.

The French ballerina has carved out a career spanning 39 years with individuality and insouciance, and has paved the way for more of such stars to emerge.

Despite standing ovations, she is not one to rest on her laurels, producing, commissioning and performing in works by contemporary dance choreographers, even for her swan song.

She fills an evening titled Life In Progress, with pieces by choreographers she has collaborated with: Akram Khan, William Forsythe, Mats Ek and Russell Maliphant.

  • REVIEW / DANCE

  • SYLVIE GUILLEM: LIFE IN PROGRESS

    da:ns Festival

    Mats Ek, William Forsythe, Akram Khan & Russell Maliphant

    Esplanade Theatre/Tuesday

But the audience has come for her, not for these distinguished dance-makers, resulting in the regrettably low-impact quadruple bill still garnering generous applause and a standing ovation.

At 50, Guillem is peerless. Her body is unimaginably supple and steely, and the physicality which revolutionised classical ballet is still turning heads today as she imbues it with a graceful ferocity.

In the works of Khan and Maliphant, she is commanding, her long, sinewy limbs suspended in the compellingly awkward balance between beauty and grotesque, classicism and modernity.

Techne is dance solo as incantation and it begins with Khan shrinking Guillem's stature into an insectoid compact.

She scurries on all fours, knees aflutter, around a wire-frame tree to live music by Alies Sluiter. But Khan has unfortunately crafted a paper-thin work with a movement vocabulary that is undirected in space and intention, depriving its inhabitor of any personality.

Maliphant's Here & After is similarly bland as the choreographer builds this new work on his past experiences with Guillem. Its greatest merit is the lighting by Michael Hulls which, during the second half of the work, transforms the stage into a checkerboard on which a playful game of tag unfolds between Guillem and Teatro Alla Scala soloist Emanuela Montanari. Both of them perform well, but in slow counterbalances and largely unison movement, they do not make their mark.

This is in stark contrast to the austere Pandora's box that is DUO2015, a restaged version of Forsythe's 1996 Duo. It is intelligent and stimulating, and has the richest choreography of the evening.

Forsythe presents a simultaneous degeneration and expansion of balletic vocabulary, as dancers Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts snap in and out of taut extensions and gestural mime. Boyish banter meets physical and intellectual sparring as they poke fun at each other and the strictures of the established language of classical ballet.

Guillem might have ventured away from her storied past, but her body does not forget and neither will her audience.

On stage for the evening's final piece, she flings her legs like a pendulum in response to the elegiac Beethoven piano sonata. Mats Ek's Bye, a gift to Guillem, is poignantly schizophrenic, oscillating between child-like wonder and experience-derived assuredness.

A film projected onto a door frame seems to depict the real world, one she left behind for the thrill of the stage. There are people, even a dog, who curiously observe her as the audience does. Is the beauty of her body overshadowing her soul? Eventually, she steps back through the door, becoming a face in the crowd.

Will the dance world lose such a superstar so easily? Not without a standing ovation, at the very least.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2015, with the headline 'Steely superstar's swan song'. Print Edition | Subscribe