Guillem: The song is almost ended, but the melody lingers on

Sylvie Guillem entered the stage like an inquisitive, fast moving animal.

Her fingers resembled little legs, scrabbling across the floor, as she approached a silvery metal tree in the centre of the stage. The tree might have been her nemesis or her home but it hardly mattered what it signified as the emphasis of Akram Khan’s choreography was on the extraordinary facility of Guillem herself rather than the obscure encounter.

Guillem draws the audience beyond a narrative into the here and now of the way she moves, her fluidity and her focus, and the manner in which she moves with great speed but finishes each phrase in a perfectly defined line.

As she edges towards her retirement at the end of this year, Guillem has retained her powerful technique and charismatic presence in her farewell world tour titled, Life in Progress, a program of works by Khan, William Forsythe, Russell Maliphant and Mats Ek.

The two that best represent her artistry at the end of her lifetime of dance are Khan’s opening piece, techne, and Ek’s Bye.

Both choreographers have worked with Guillem for many years. Ek’s first piece for Guillem, Wet Woman, was choreographed in 1995 and her collaboration with Khan began with his Sacred Monsters in 2006.

Danced to live music composed by Alies Sluiter, techne’s grounded choreography and the eloquent hand gestures are familiar aspects of Khan’s choreography. Guillem’s hands are sometimes splayed or her fingers clutch like paws as she stalks and confronts the tree. It remains firmly fixed in place until it slowly, magically rotates. Techne ends as the branches, resembling human limbs, enclose her.

Photos of the work as it was first performed show a giant microphone rather than a tree. That’s an intriguing change of stage prop and I wonder why the change.

Techne is followed by William Forsythe’s Duo, first performed in 1996, and revived this year for the Life In Progress tour.

Danced by two men, the Albanian, Brigel Gjoka and the American, Riley Watts, the subtle score was composed by Forsythe’s long time collaborator, Thom Willems.

The music plays a relatively minor role in the extraordinary duet that is mesmeric in the way that each dancer mirrors the other’s movement but also acts as a counterpoint.

As in many Forsythe works, the dancers in Duo go back to base from time to time, striking a position that’s repeated, often a bold balletic pose, or a specific, repetitive movement such as an arm that swings as if disconnected to the body while the shoulder rotates with such force that it looks as if the arm might fly from its moorings.

From a choreographic point of view, Duo, and the closing work, Bye, were the highlights of the program and while I’d love to have seen Guillem dance in Duo herself she chose wisely in bringing these two men on her world tour to interpret Forsythe’s intricate patterns of connection, disconnection, and response.

The weakest element of Life in Progress was Maliphant’s Here & After, a new duet for Guillem and a soloist from La Scala, Emanuela Montanari.

It opens with the women, lit like golden sylphs in a pre-Raphaelite setting, extending their arms to one another and displaying their muscular backs. The score by Andy Cowton includes the sounds of ever-louder breathing and finally yodeling as the couple navigate – and appear to compete – as they dance on a sequence of squares created in lighting by Maliphant’s collaborator, the award winning designer, Michael Hulls.

The physical connection was strong but the impact, and emotional connection, for me, was missing.

In 2011, when Mats Ek was in his mid-60s and Guillem was not far from retirement, the Swedish choreographer created Bye, a solo that seemed to mark a closure for them both.

Danced to Beethoven’s final piano sonata, Ek describes the work as “about a woman who takes leave of a certain stage in her life. It is a conversation that she has with herself that leads to new experiences”.

Guillem previously brought the work to Australia in her world tour, 6000 Miles Away, but this time it has much more relevance as the last piece in the last tour.

Dancing in a charity shop ensemble of a yellow skirt, printed top and cardigan, Guillem portrays a woman who remembers her past, her fears, loneliness, and relationships with [videoed] men, women and children – and a dog – who appear to arrive and depart as shadows beyond a door frame at the rear of the set.

If one choreographer has connected with Guillem intellectually more than any other I think it might be Ek. In Bye, he has created a unique blending of Guillem’s classical ballet past – jetes, arabesques, turns – they are all there in their perfection – with quirky walks and quirkier poses, including handstands with legs outstretched like a frog’s legs and feet flexed.

Bye will be remembered as a landmark dance farewell for a great artist in the same way the most memorable ‘goodbye’ lines in plays, movies and popular music, among them Irving Berlin’s melancholy classic, “The Song Is Ended – but the melody lingers on”.

Guillem’s melody will play on long after she leaves the stage for the final time in Tokyo next December.

The season of Life in Progress at the Sydney Opera House ends on Tuesday 25 August.

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Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, Duo, photo © Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem, techne, photo © Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem, techne, photo © Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem, Bye, photo © Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem, Bye, photo © Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem and Emanuela Montanari, Here & After, photo © Bill Cooper