The front cover of the festival programme shows a photograph of a little girl staring out sweetly, squinting towards the camera on an idyllic summer’s day- totally relaxed and in the moment, as children are. That cherub, of course, grew up to be the great French dancer Sylvie Guillem. What makes the photograph so poignant (the obvious fact of Guillem’s imminent retirement aside) is that she has never lost that instinctive, questioning quality in her performance. She’s absolutely natural, with the rare gift of complete control and self-possession.
Opener technê pitches her as a kind of techno sprite. Against a large wire tree resembling a child’s papier-mâché project, which illuminates as the piece develops, she crawls sideways, a naïf feeling her way into an uncertain terrain. The tree only serves to make her seem even tinier. Guillem’s choreography by Akram Khan is waspish and delicate, expanding into bolder gestures of stretchy, spiky top lines and acrobatic tumbles, as the sprite grows in confidence and settles into her new environment. A gorgeous fusion soundtrack by Prathap Ramachandra, Emma Smith and beatboxer Grace Savage frames a sinewy, sensual routine which has the Eastern shaping and iconoclastic scope of Khan’s finest work.
Her very last performance, which leaves many of her admirers in the audience tonight visibly tearful, plays with feelings of nostalgia and innocence.
Choreographed by Mats Ek, and simply titled Bye, she emerges from a little screen where a monochrome version of herself – small, distant and childlike – takes tentative steps.
Seamlessly blending storytelling with surreal multimedia imagery, Ek’s layered routine has Guillem paying homage to The Marx Brothers’ feted mirror scene, reinventing the silent screen era through a fluttery interpretation of euphoric jazz and balletic gesture. It’s gorgeous, warm, gently humorous (a dog appears on screen, incongruously, then runs off) and an incredibly affecting finale, as she joins an extended family who appear to greet her towards the end – but by no means the most interesting piece.
That accolade goes to the unsettling Here and After created by Russell Maliphant, which is a cinematic treat. Like missing characters from a lost David Lynch film, Guillem and partner, Italian dancer Emanuela Montanari are welded together like Siamese twins, obscured in a gauzy haze. The creepy, noirish set design and strobing lighting by Michael Hulls provides an otherwordly mood, and as the pair separate their bodies contort, as though trying to make sense of new found freedom and hunch down as if for protection. The frame opens up and a sci-fi twist emerges, with angular arms and blurring movements like vapour trails to a sparse, kinetic drum ‘n’ bass soundtrack by Andy Howton. They become as one piece of flexible sculpture, at once rooted in modernity and tradition. Utterly sublime – and a fitting tribute to the power of Guillem’s almost superhuman strength.
We can only wonder at her exciting future endeavours.
Bonne chance, Ms. Guillem. Au revoir, jolie, et merci.