Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Adieu, Sylvie

Sylvie Guillem performing Technê in Life in Progress, at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre. (Photo: Bill Cooper)

As a seasoned dance critic and author of a history of the ballerina, I am often asked who my favourite dancer is. I never hesitate. The answer is Sylvie Guillem. I saw the goddess of the dance perform in a full-length ballet only once, in 1990 when the Paris-born ballerina was at the peak of her powers. But it was the kind of experience I needed to have only once to know that Guillem was the era’s supreme objet d’art.

The ballet in question was Don Quixote which Guillem’s mentor, the great Rudolf Nureyev, had staged for the Paris Opera using original choreography by Marius Petipa. Guillem was Kitri, the feisty female lead whose elegantly assured dancing is peppered with intricate pointe work, lightening quick jumps and whipping wrists that flutter a fan. Guillem danced the role as if she were born to it, sparking thunderous applause and a standing ovation for herself and her partner, Patrick Dupond.

Nureyev had invited me to this performance and insisted I meet him backstage so he could introduce me to his protégée. I remember that the spitfire I had watched in amazement only moments ago looked shy and retiring in Nureyev’s presence. Clasping her willowy arms behind the back of her tutu and shifting her weight back and forth in satin toe shoes scuffed and bruised from almost two hours of non-stop dancing, she waited anxiously behind-the-scenes to hear what Nureyev had to say.

The Russian devilishly bided his time, letting her squirm. After Nureyev had made her France’s top-ranking dancer, raising her to the position of étoile, the Paris Opera Ballet’s highest position, when she was just 19 years old, Guillem had a year earlier decamped to the Royal Ballet in London to become a principal guest artist. While Nureyev had obviously gotten over his feelings of betrayal, inviting Guillem back to dance in his ballet, he still wanted her to know who was boss.

Her fans crowed around her and she smiled at them but was clearly distracted. Her eyes were always on Nureyev. When he finally but slowly walked up to her everyone went silent. Grabbing hold of her pale hands, he looked Guillem in the eyes and declared in a voice that was barely above a whisper that she had been magnifique. You could feel the nervous tension rushing out of her in an exhalation of relief. She had been great, but she would believe it only when said from on top.

Such was my highly memorable introduction to the dancer I have since come greatly to admire. I am not the only one. Critics the world over have declared her the greatest ballerina of our time. It’s no exaggeration.

In the course of researching my book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, I learned of dancers past who by dint of their extraordinary talent impact ballet in such a way as to take the art form in a new direction. Their names are Provost, Camargo, Sallé, Taglioni, Legnani, Pavlova, Plisteskaya, Ulanova, Kirkland and Fonteyn. Born in 1965, Guillem belongs to the list of legendary ballerina innovators.

Long, lean and lithe, she has used her remarkable body to stretch the physical limits of ballet while also endowing it with the kind of feral energy born of a creature that will not be tamed. Able to shoot her legs straight up in extensions reaching above her head, Guillem established the trend for six o’clock legs that are now all the rage in ballet. She also revived a respect for verisimilitude in dance, a result of fully inhabiting a role and performing it with heart-rending abandon. Purists have accused her of performing circus tricks. But her devotees, and they are legion, celebrate Guillem for having pushed ballet forward into new territory. She has made ballet sexy again, if not heatedly discussed.

Strikingly unsentimental about ballet, Guillem has experimented with contemporary dance and by being open to exploration has extended her career beyond that of most classical dancers. She is a ballet superstar who eschews the trappings of fame, allying herself with eco causes and refusing to sit for a cover photo shoot if it means she has to wear make-up. She is an extraordinary physical as well as intellectual proponent of the dance and for this she stands apart. Her awards include the Officier de la Légion d’Honneur, Officier dans l’Ordre National du Mérite, Officier des Arts et Lettres, and, in Britain, an honorary CBE. Those who haven’t had the fortune of seeing her dance live should check Guillem out on YouTube where her Raymonda Variation is one of the wonders of the digital world.

Sylvie Guillem performing Bye in Life in Progress. (Photo: Lesley Leslie-Spinks)

Like many artists who take your breath away, Guillem combines masterful technique with a forceful personality. Originally trained as a gymnast by her gymnastics teacher mother, she came to ballet at the relatively late age of 11 after entering the Paris Opera Ballet School in 1977 to study with Claude Bessy. Like Kitri, Guillem has always been very much her own person, unwilling to dance by the rules. Guillem earned the sobriquet of “Mademoiselle Non” while dancing at the Royal Ballet in London. The fiery redhead flat-out refused to dance in works she thought beneath her and often butted heads with the Royal’s then reigning choreographer, the highly esteemed Sir Kenneth MacMillan. I had a chance to meet up with Guillem again in 2010, this time in Toronto, when she was dancing barefoot in Eonnagata, a work of dance-drama created by Canada’s Robert Lepage and also starring British dancer/choreographer Russell Maliphant, Guillem’s frequent collaborator since transitioning to contemporary dance in 2004.

We met before the show for coffee and a conversation that touched on her reputation as a diva. She batted the accusation aside as if it were an annoying fly buzzing about her ears. “Because I want to fight for quality that makes me difficult?” she said rhetorically, her English punctuated by a sultry French accent. “Non!,” Mademoiselle continued. “I believe that when an artist says something it is a necessity. Art is not something you do without questioning, like a blind person. It demands excellence. I will give nothing less.”

It is now five years later, and Guillem, at 50, has decided to quit the stage for good, leaving with her integrity still intact. Her insistence that dance mean something beyond the physical gesture has led her to craft a farewell tour consisting of four handpicked works of contemporary dance chosen for their sense of daring. Featuring choreography by the aforementioned Maliphant in addition to Sweden’s Mats Ek, England’s Akram Khan and America’s William Forsythe, a resident of Frankfurt, Life In Progress is not your typical ballerina’s finale – no tiaras and no tears, either. While the dances themselves are a mixed lot, artistically speaking, the dancing is sharp, focused, stripped of extraneous emotional baggage. Guillem, as is her practice, is fully in the moment. After 39 years on the stage she has earned the right to say good-bye on her own terms. And yet anyone who will see her show as it wends its way around the world – the next stop is New York’s City Centre, Nov. 12 to 14, followed by final dates in Austria and Tokyo in December – will wonder why she has to leave as yet. Guillem is still very much in command of her freakishly flexible body, still in possession of highly carved feet that soar upwards like the arches of Gothic cathedrals. The point is to leave with a bang.

But when you’re a mature dance artist creating an explosion in the theatre has an entirely subjective meaning. While there is physical daring in this show, it’s tightly contained, coming across as an expression of pride in the work more than a need to show off the technique that early on made her a superstar. The fireworks are there but they are slow burning. This is dancing as a contemplative act as much as a form of physical expression.

Supporting that idea is Khan’s Technê, an inward-looking solo that Guillem dances around a twinkling tree-like structure that shares the stage with three musicians on Indian instruments performing in the shadows. Striking out at the branches with the sudden ferocity of a cobra, Guillem eschews her ballerina training, scuttling about the stage on all fours and appearing as her own force of nature. In interviews, Khan has said that this commissioned work was inspired by Guillem’s personal interests, in particular her vegetarianism and her eco-activism. But while the choreography hums with ideas, they aren’t quite fully developed. Technê – the title is a Greek word meaning knowledge rooted in practice – falls flat. And yet it has some lightening clear moments having mostly to do with Guillem’s innate talent: fast-flung limbs and unwavering balances that focus the eye on the intensity of the dancer’s complete connection to the dance.

Emanuela Montanari and Sylvie Guillem performing Here and After in Life in Progress. (Photo: Bill Cooper)

Guillem catches her breath while Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts take the stage to perform the next number, Forsythe’s fascinating DUO2015. An intricately crafted male duet, the choreography is like one of those moveable brain teasers that test your IQ. In this case, what’s being tested is the dancers’ dexterity and stamina. Both members of The Forsythe Company, they stand side-by-side, never touching as they pivot their shoulders back and forth and swing their arms in taut pendulum lines in sync with each other and Thom Willems’s barely discernible electronic score. They look locked in a competition to see whose muscles can outstretch whose. It’s exhilaratingly athletic, a delight to watch. The only regret is that Guillem didn’t dance this challenging work herself. Forsythe had originally created the dance in 1996 for two female members of Ballett Frankfurt, using it as a showpiece for razor-sharp tendus and elongated legs. Imagine what she could have done with it.

But the duet Guillem has opted to perform is Maliphant’s Here & After, which she commissioned for her farewell tour. Guillem dances with the Italian dancer, Emanuela Montanari, a ballerina with Teatro alla Scala in Milan, to a score that is a series of yodels. As a female duet it serves as a counterpoint to the piece that just preceded it. But where the other dance was fast and finicky, this one starts slow and sculptural before erupting into some high-octane female partnering work infused with movements borrowed from the martial arts. Guillem dances in tandem with Montanari, never attempting to upstage her. While the other woman easily holds her own alongside her more famous dance partner, Guillem has that unmistakeable extra, a vibrating intensity, that sets her apart.

That inner something is fully on display in the last piece of the evening, Eks’ poignant solo, Bye. First created in 2011, the work serves perfectly in 2015 as Guillem’s swan song. The choreography depicts her as a middle-aged woman surrounded by friends and family whose images are projected on a vertical 6-by-3 foot panel serving as both a doorway and a video screen. The piece cleverly shows Guillem interacting with her real life and her life on stage as she climbs in and out of the scrim separating her two worlds. She is racked by memories, and as she moves about the stage, taking off bits of clothing that metaphorically show her stripping herself bare, she relives her tantrums and her triumphs as she oscillates between impetuous defiance and mature acceptance of the journey on which she has embarked. Beethovan’s Arietta, from his last piano sonata, plays in the background, making clear that this is a piece about finality. When, in the end, Guillem steps out of the spotlight to join the people waiting for her on the other side, the ballerina has exited her life in the theatre and appears ready to be absorbed back into the anonymity of the everyday. It’s a death of sorts, and also a rebirth. As she walks determinedly away, her back to the audience, Guillem steals a furtive look back at the theatre that has brilliantly defined her, and then soldiers on. An artist not soon to be forgotten.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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