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Life in Progress: Sylvie Guillem (review)

The first time I ever saw Ms Guillem dance, my French boyfriend of the time remarked “great buns”...it was a pretty low-brow comment for the dance icon who was once the top ranking ballerina with the Paris Opera and who became a principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet. Famous for her roles in Nureyev’s staging of Swan Lake and Don Quixote, she was awarded the Legion d’honneur in 2009. Last November she announced her intention to retire at age 50 this year; she has been dancing for 35 years.

This week sees the first London performances of her farewell programme, entitled appropriately “Life in Progress”. Her intention with this was not to have some re-hashed repertoire of past glorious performance but to introduce new work and to lead forward into the future. The treat we therefore got was two UK premieres, the first by Bengali choreographer, Akram Khan, famous for his participation in the London Olympics. Entitled “Techne”, he claims that the work explores whether dance as art is the memory of movement. The show here was stolen by not only his musicians, led by an acclaimed Indian percussionist but by the lighting courtesy of Lucy Carter renowned for her work with the hot new modern choreographer of the Royal Ballet, Wayne McGregor. This meant the sight of Guillem overawed by an electronically controlled tree, suggesting that even her dance was eclipsed and yet in tune with nature. Khan is renowned for his complex rhythmic footwork as well as dynamic contrasts between speed and stillness and Guillem’s athleticism rose to the challenge.

The jewel of the evening however was another premiere by the famous Russell Maliphant, a graduate of both the Royal Ballet and Sadlers Wells. This mesmerising hypnotic piece turned out to be a duo for Guillem and also Emanulea Montanari, a star of Teatro alla Scala. While brazen and modern, this piece was again an acknowledgement of the past works of Guillem; the perfect showcase for Sylvie’s famous perfect lines and a tribute to feminine strength and elegance. The final piece of the evening was the aptly named “Bye”…first staged in 2011 and choreographed by the Swede, Mats Ek. It has already been praised for allowing Guillem to astonish in a neurotic edgy journey of self-doubt, discovery, loneliness and then inclusion. Indeed, it was the perfect reminder that Guillem has morphed over the years from a very classical ballerina to a contemporary and modern artist. A standing ovation at the end of the evening was “de rigueur” for such an iconic event.

So farewell to one of the greatest dancers of her generation. Guillem apparently jokes that she has a secret assassin who has a “license to kill” if she ever decides to make a comeback from retirement, but more seriously she is also quoted as saying: “Time is time, age is age. When you finish the book, you finish it”. LA FIN! Or is it?! 

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