Life in Progress: Sylvie Guillem at New York City Center

New York, N.Y.  A rattling sound punctures the dark, then the rumble of thunder. Light, subtle but growing, caresses a twisted metallic tree. Something moves in the dark, a presence sensed before the eye can quite pick it out. The figure scuttles into view, edging around the moon-like circle of light framing the tree as it remains crouched, shoulders hunched and face hidden by a shock of dark hair. The figure, strange and unfamiliar, circles, twitches, unfolds as the sound grows. Silence shrinks in as the creature touches the tree, then rushes back as we see, for the first time since the start of the piece, a human being. And not just any human: the legendary Sylvie Guillem.

Guillem in technê; photo by Bill Cooper

Guillem in technê; photo by Bill Cooper

So begins technê, the solo that opens Life in Progress. The program has been touring internationally to mark the final performances of Sylvie Guillem, the famed ballerina/contemporary artist who has been a lauded name in the dance world since she began making waves at the Paris Opera in the 1980s. Now, at age 50, Guillem is retiring from the stage after a career of pushing boundaries and refusing to be satisfied with anyone’s definition of artist but her own. With a program featuring work by some of her most notable collaborators, Life in Progress shows that Guillem is no less luminous than ever.

Akram Khan’s technê is named for a Greek word meaning knowledge based in practice. The solo, a US Premiere, is a perfect choice for a show opener. It reminds the audience of key facts about Guillem as a performer: that her ballet technique sits easy in her bones like breathing, that she has the ability to make it seem as though the sound score is singing from her very skin, that she can direct the viewer’s attention to exactly where she decides it should be without screaming for attention.

Whether gesticulating with terrifyingly articulate hands, achieving a perfectly aligned arabesque, or circling the space with clumsy, jittery motions, the movement does not determine what seems natural or unnatural, easy or awkward: Guillem does. By the time technê ends, with Guillem glowing in the light of the tree she seems to be beginning to understand, it feels as though we have witnessed the journey of a lifetime that is only truly beginning as the light and sound fade to nothing.

Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in Duo2015; photo by Bill Cooper

Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in Duo2015; photo by Bill Cooper

Duo2015 follows. William Forsythe’s contribution to the evening is danced by Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts. The pair functions as an abstraction of a clock, the movement both disjointed and gooey in a way that mimics the way time speeds and slows through our perception of it. The movement seems simultaneously impossible and organic; it is as though the two men are attempting to do ballet with all of their joints turned inside out. Gjoka and Watts execute the piece with spectacular skill, creating the illusion that they are controlling precisely how much gravity is affecting them at any given moment.

Guillem and Emanuela Montanari in Here & After; photo by Bill Cooper

Guillem and Emanuela Montanari in Here & After; photo by Bill Cooper

Guillem then returns to the stage with Emanuela Montanari to dance Russell Maliphant’s Here & After. A spotlight creates the impression of a thicket of brambles as the pair slowly sways in unison at the center. The piece escalates in exuberance here to a playful combat of turns, manipulations, and extensions, highlighting the women’s razor-sharp precision before retrograding back to the slow-motion quality with which it began. 

To close the evening, Guillem performed Bye, a solo created for her by Mats Ek in 2011. In the program notes, Ek only says, “A woman enters a room. After a while she is ready to leave. Ready to join others.” Bye is a monologue of a piece, utilizing video projected onto a white doorway to give a glimpse of the world outside the room. Dressed in a skirt, cardigan, socks, and clogs, Guillem is at turns endearingly youthful and stunningly world-weary. She moves with the exuberance of an eight-year old, the awkwardness of a gangly teenager, the maturity of a woman with thirty-nine years of practice behind her. She marks the time of a Beethoven waltz with simple steps, jumps in the air with the uncoordinated joy of a little girl playing at being a ballerina, expertly plucks a note out of the air with a preternaturally arched foot and then displays the technical skill that won her the title etoile (star) at the Paris Opera over thirty years ago.

Guillem in Bye; photo by Bill Cooper

Guillem in Bye; photo by Bill Cooper

In many ways, Bye feels like the most honest representation of Guillem as a performer there is. Now, with it set to act as the final piece that she will ever dance onstage (her last bow is set for December 30 in Japan), it takes on additional layers of meaning. It felt as though we were watching Guillem grow into her own skin as an artist, sometimes with humor and sometimes with frustration. When she approached the doorway at the end of the piece on Friday evening, I found myself not ready to watch her go just yet. But with an outstretched foot she stepped into the doorway, looked back once, and walked out of sight–ready to face whatever would happen next outside of the room in which we had been so fortunate to glimpse her.

Guillem will say her final goodbye to New York City audiences tonight. I do not believe that anyone is ready to let her go. But, as she writes in her program note, “This is a Life in Progress. My Life.” Sylvie Guillem is going out on her own terms–she simply would not be Sylvie otherwise.

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Courtney Escoyne is an assistant editor and contributor at Dance Magazine. A recent graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dance, her writing can also be read in Pointe and on her blog, Thoughts From a Ballet Nerd.