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Sylvie Guillem

By Barbara Newman

Sadler’s Wells Theatre
London, England
July 5–9, 2011

 

Guillem in Mats Ek's Bye. Photo courtesy Sadler's Wells.

 

To sell out a theater, simply put Sylvie Guillem on the poster. At 46, the French-étoile-turned-Royal-Ballet-guest-artist-turned-freelance-performer can still pack a house by herself, no matter what she chooses to dance.

 

Guillem was already rehearsing her latest concert when the tsunami struck Japan in March. She has titled the evening "6000 miles away" as a tribute to the devastated nation, which will receive the proceeds from one performance through the Japan Tsunami Appeal administered by the British Red Cross. Rather than mourning the grim events, however, the two half-hour pieces that Sadler's Wells commissioned for this program seemed to celebrate both the thriving life of dance and the ageless artistry of its finest performers.


William Forsythe’s Rearray is his fourth creation for Guillem, who appeared in the original cast of his In the middle, somewhat elevated 24 years ago. Physically fragmented, to an equally fragmented score by David Morrow that added nothing to the choreography, the new duet interleaves a string of absorbing solos with intimate duets. Initially the partners ignored one other, merely occupying the same space, but drawing nearer they eventually shared a single impulse.


Between the disjointed kinks of the combinations, Guillem and Nicolas Le Riche passed like lightning through the ideal positions of the classical vocabulary, which they both acquired in the Paris Opéra Ballet’s rigorous school. Easily maintaining the habits of a lifetime, with their limbs at full stretch or folded into phrases that shifted by fractions, they displayed absolute control over pace, dynamics, and direction, so at every instant we saw precisely what Forsythe intended.


Rearray took its character directly from the movement, a riveting reinvention of the familiar, and from the charismatic performers whose innate authority somehow made every gesture both a question about dance’s potential and its own answer.


Perfectly balanced by Le Riche’s understated elegance, Guillem needs no support to command the stage alone. In Mats Ek’s Bye, having topped a video image of her body with her living head, she stepped into full view wearing a short skirt, loose cardigan, shoes and socks, looking remarkably like a schoolgirl.


Awkward at first, slumping, scuffing, pivoting on her hands in a ragged circle, she grew in stature and assurance as she discarded the sweater and bared her feet. Slowly, the girl shed the ungainly swagger of Pippi Longstocking to become a luxuriantly expansive adult who gamboled as lightly as Isadora Duncan and rested in a relaxed headstand. This exceptional star finally retreated behind the screen, joining the anonymous projected crowd that had gathered on it to watch her.


Incredibly, Beethoven’s last piano sonata neither intimidated Ek, who selected it to accompany the solo, nor overpowered Guillem. Together they created a dance about progress—a woman’s progress, an artist’s progress—that hung in the air like history made tangible.