Sylvie Guillem in technê Photo Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem in technê
Photo Bill Cooper

City Center, New York, NY
November 12, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Those who have been attending ballet a long time remember ‘firsts’. The first time we saw the balcony scene in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Act II of La Bayadère, Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove or Baryshnikov’s brisés volés in Giselle. The first time we saw Makarova, Vishneva, Fracci, Ferri or Kirkland. The world has shrunk; opportunities to see extraordinary dancers have increased exponentially, and consequently the list of unforgettable ‘firsts’ could go on and on. But the memory of the time I and most other New York frequent ballet fliers first saw Sylvie Guillem is particularly indelible.

It was at The Met in July 1986, during the Paris Opera Ballet’s first visit to New York in decades. It was her first New York season (she’d been promoted to étoile two years earlier, when she was 19). And it was Swan Lake. She was like no ballerina I’d ever seen. She wasn’t just Odette – she was Odette from another galaxy. Of course, those developpés à la seconde made you gasp – not just because they were 180 degrees, but because the delivery was so in line with character and in time with the music. She wasn’t milking it, or showing some super-athletic trick she could do to impress the audience. Her incredibly arched feet were tethered to invisible helium balloons, and whenever she lifted a leg, there it went. She was just Guillem being Guillem.

And her physical appearance was, to me, unique. Tall and lithe but still having the architecture and speed of a more petite ballerina, 75% legs, with a gamine-like face that looked extraordinarily beautiful attached to that sylph-like body. And her ability to inhabit a role was uncanny. She didn’t just dominate the stage – she devoured it.

The performances in Manon of Vishneva and Ferri are rightfully legendary – but Guilem’s Manon, which I saw some years later with The Royal Ballet, was on a completely different level. Her entrance in Act III, the doomed courtesan being delivered to her death in the bayou, was as much gasp-inducing as her developpés. Ballet ‘generations’ seem to occur every few years, like academic cycles, but however it’s calculated, she was incontrovertibly one of the finest ballerinas of her, or any, generation.

Always inclined to expand her horizons throughout her ballet career, Guillem abandoned ballet for more contemporary dance in 2003, and became almost as celebrated in that capacity as she was as a ballerina.

Sylvie Guillem with Emanuela Montanari in Russell Maliphant's Here & After Photo Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem with Emanuela Montanari in Russell Maliphant’s Here & After
Photo Bill Cooper

The program last night at City Center represented one stop on a months-long, globe-spanning farewell as she finally retires from performing. It’s unfortunate that the dances didn’t match her in caliber, but few in the packed house were there to see the dances. I would have preferred half the evening devoted to filmed highlights of her career as a ballerina, but that’s not where Guillem now is.

Akram Khan’s technê (from the Greek, loosely meaning ‘craft’; the ‘doing’ of something rather than the ‘understanding’ of something) is a strange dance. In a program note, Khan claims that he wanted to say something about “the combination of craft, discipline, desire, and letting go that underlies art and life.” I saw nothing in technê that resembles that description.

The central figure, and the primal ‘force’ in the dance, is an unusual looking tree. It’s a contorted, glittering Bodhi Tree without leaves or bark; a Tree of Souls pared to its essence with horizontal rungs that make it look as if Jacob’s Ladder had been grafted onto its translucent branches.

As the dance begins, the tree shimmers in ersatz moonlight upstage center, amid muted sounds of primeval thunder, while the remainder of the stage remains dark. Guillem’s character, or perhaps her avatar, emerges from the darkened background as if from the woods – horizontal, hovering close to the ground, her back to the floor. With her long limbs folded under her, her knees sticking up and pumping like pistons as she gobbles the stage, she looks like a grasshopper on steroids. Eventually, as the background sound becomes reminiscent of gentle wind and sea waves, this life form grows more humanoid and becomes self-aware via an endless series of thrashing, pounding hand gestures and leg thrusts, as well as movements that look like self-measurement. At the end, she stands next to the tree, back to the audience, arms raised tree-like, as she prepares to go to life’s next level having gathered strength, wisdom, inspiration from her emotional and physical evolution and from that tree.

The dance isn’t bad for what it is. Although the movement is angular and repetitious and primarily at one decibel level, what makes it of interest is seeing the incredible things that Guillem can still do with her body.

Duo2015, a rehash of William Forsythe’s 1996 piece, Duo, is a duet for two men (something had to be presented while Guillem caught her breath and changed costumes) dancing mainly in parallel but at varying degrees of distance from each other. Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, both veterans of Forsythe’s company, executed the sometimes slinky, sometimes angular choreography superbly. The dance itself is more than a simple abstract piece. It’s a study visualizing one dancer’s interaction with another – interplay that produces synchronization – for no reason other than to explore and illustrate the forms and process of interaction (called ‘entrainment’) rather than to characterize it in any way.

The best that can be said of Russell Maliphant’s Here & After is that Guillem danced in it. The piece presents initially as two bodies in space circling each other. At first, the sensation is like Monotones, but it quickly evolves such that the women appear to be sizing each other up in preparation for some celestial boxing match, and subsequently for some earthly relationship. The dancers make the piece pleasurable to watch (the other dancer, Emanuela Montanari, has the presence and capability to effectively balance Guillem), but there’s no real there there. And choreographically the dance is repetitious – filled with windmill arms and windmill legs and a lot of posing, but not much more.

Sylvie Guillem in Bye. Photo Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem in Bye.
Photo Bill Cooper

Mats Ek’s Bye closed the program. The title is sufficiently descriptive of its purpose – but it loses something when one sees that it premiered in 2011: it’s been a very long goodbye. Be that as it may, Bye was by far the most delightful piece on the program, enlightened mainly by Guillem’s presence, but also by the inventive use of thrillingly clever integrated videos (by Elias Benxon).

Bye is an homage to Guillem, a bittersweet reflection on the end of the performing career of one of the world’s greatest dancers. And on that level, is both beautifully done and singularly appropriate. Guillem is seen looking through a room from the outside in. She enters the room, relives her performing experiences, and then leaves to join the non-performing outside world. The images are sufficiently clear (there are references to Guillem as gymnast, as ballerina, and as contemporary dancer), even though some seem temporally jumbled. But details here aren’t the point. Any choreographic deficiency or lack of clarity is far outweighed by seeing Guillem’s still abundant technical facility, her musicality, and her still amazing legs and feet. And the fact that it’s not nearly as choreographically inventive as the farewell pièce d’occasion choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky for Wendy Whelan isn’t significant either. Bye may not be as reverential as By 2 With and From, but it’s far more fun. And it shows Guillem as she’s always been – just Guillem being Guillem.

When Bye ended, the audience, which included several ABT and NYCB dancers, immediately arose en masse to say their goodbyes, and remained cheering through a continuing series of curtain calls. No one in my visual range was willing to let her go. Guillem seemed genuinely stunned.

At the end of the last curtain call, as she gave her final bow, Guillem very gratefully mouthed “Merci” to her equally grateful audience. Mais non. Merci à vous.