Sylvie Guillem in Bye Photo Johan Persson

Sylvie Guillem in Bye
Photo Johan Persson

September 8, 2015

David Mead

This may come as a surprise, but I remember almost nothing about the first time I saw Sylvie Guillem on stage; and by then she was already an established star. Coincidentally, it was also at the Birmingham Hippodrome, the same stage that this Tuesday saw her dance her last but one UK performance (the very last is Wednesday 9th).

That first sighting was with The Royal Ballet in Manon, back in 1992, in those the dim and distant days when they used to tour at home, and a full eight years after she came to notice as the youngest ever étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet. For various reasons, for a long time sightings thereafter were few and far between, although I do recall vividly a sparkling Herman Schmerman alongside Adam Cooper at the Haymarket, Leicester on a Royal Ballet Dance Bites programme (remember those?).

Time and people move on, of course, and while for many it’s Guillem’s classical performances that marked her out, for me it was always those more contemporary works, especially those where she had more scope to use her super-flexible body and glorious extensions. Remember that when she arrived at the Paris Opera Ballet School aged 11, it was as a gymnast on a year’s exchange, not as a ballet dancer.

Over the years, Guillem has gained a reputation for being shy and difficult to deal with. She gained the nickname “Madame non” (actually originally given somewhat in jest) for what was seen as her stubbornness and steely determination to do things her way. On one notable occasion a blazing argument between her and Kenneth MacMillan brought the Royal Opera House to a standstill as it was accidentally broadcast over the theatre’s public address system.

In fact, that attitude was as much to do with an unflinching need to make her own choices and a belief in what roles were right for her as a dancer; and she has been proved correct. Her determination has also been a huge asset as she occasionally initially struggled when working in styles she was unaccustomed to with choreographers she did not know. Lin Hwai-min once told me how impressed he was by just that when working with her on a solo for Akram Khan’s Sacred Monsters; and he really meant it.

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

Reputations stick, of course, but these days Guillem strikes as being much mellower. At a press conference in Taipei ahead of her 6000 Miles Away programme I remember her being delightfully laid back and chatty. She even apologised for talking too much, not that anyone was complaining. And how many dancers are happy to sit and sign hundreds of autographs directly after a performance as she did a few days later?

In recent years Guillem has developed a special bond with choreographer Russell Maliphant. It started with Broken Fall in 2004 but really blossomed two years later in Push, which has become a classic of its kind; movement as poetry, two bodies and minds as one. It’s no surprise Here & After, a duet with Emanuela Montanari from La Scala, Milan that sits in the centre of this farewell Life in Progress programme has such magic too.

Full of soft elegance and lightness, the opening half in particular is typical Maliphant. Guillem and Montanari tilt, curve, twist and turn around one another as they move around Michael Hull’s subtle lighting; lighting that also paints gorgeous shifting creamy-orange patterns on their bodies. At times it is near meditative, but as the lit area of the stage expands and the music picks up, so the dance responds. By the end the couple eat up the space, their limbs sweeping through the air in graceful arcs.

Akram Khan’s technê appealed more than at Sadler’s Wells a few months ago. The crystal-like tree that sits centre stage appears to exert some strange power that constantly demands response. As in all the pieces, there are glimpses of classical steps and positions. Guillem’s limbs are startling in their fluidity as she moves close to the ground, but it’s her hands and wrists that really take the eye. Whether it’s a reference back to Khan’s kathak background is unclear, but they certainly have the clarity that dance demands. A special mention here again for Alies Sluiter’s contemporary Eastern sounding score, played live by Prathap Ramachandra (percussion), Grace Savage (beatbox) and Emma Smith (violin, voice, laptop), all largely hidden in the upstage darkness.

Sylvie Guillem in technê. Photo Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem in technê.
Photo Bill Cooper

Between technê and Here & After, William Forsythe’s DUO2015 (reworked from the original Duo) is a fascinating exercise. At first in silence, then to an electronic soundscape by regular Forsythe collaborator Thom Willems, Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts work off each other in every way possible. Sometimes it’s perfect unison, but more often they echo, reverse, do the opposite or simply react in unexpected ways. The detail in the movement and accuracy of the pair is remarkable. They fully deserved the rousing reception they got.

And so to Bye, made specially for Guillem by Mats Ek, it’s a reflective piece full of memories, of looking back; moments of happiness and joy, moments of sadness, moments of uncertainty. It’s full of questions. Is the casting off of her cardigan, socks and shoes a metaphorical casting off of part of her life? Maybe. What is certain is that it fills Guillem with a sense of freedom. Her playful side bursts forth. Her dance has a childlike gawky innocence. But she’s brought back to earth, to reality perhaps, as a crowd slowly assembles to watch on the video screen that is integral to the action. Silently they call her. She slips behind the screen to join them; just another face. Only she’s not of course, and never can be. As everyone drifts away (read the audience leaving for the final time), she takes one final look at the us and the world that was hers. It’s so simple and yet a remarkably spine-tingling moment. Then she too turns away and is gone.

Birmingham dance audiences don’t give standing ovations easily, but they rose as one, calling Guillem back time and again.

And so the curtain comes down. Even her website says “Closing soon” and “It’s time to move on.” As she has said, it’s better to stop a little early and before there’s any decline than too late. Even so, I suspect we have not heard the last of the very special lady that is Sylvie Guillem. Who knows what will come next, although she does have a great interest in environmental campaigning, and presently sits on the Media and Arts Advisory Board of Sea Shepherd, an international marine wildlife conservation society that believes in direct action to confront illegal activities and to conserve and protect species.

Thanks Sylvie, and “Bye.”

Sylvie Guillem’s Life in Progress tour continues internationally to December 20. For venues and dates, click here.