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Flash Journal, 5-4: Sacred Dancers
Power Playing: Guillem meets Maliphant & Khan

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2007 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Ballerina Sylvie Guillem triumphs at being the 'guest' artist. She has invited herself into the work of a variety of contemporary artists, and appears in these productions like a celebrity with her chat-show hosts. The two most recent have been independent choreographers Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan. One feels with Guillem that she has a low boredom threshold so that when she sees challenging new dance opportunities she grabs them forcibly. Her career as a 'contemporary' dancer is nearly five years old now, since she first joined forces with Maliphant in 2003, when he choreographed "Broken Fall" for her, Michael Nunn, and William Trevitt. Since then her ongoing dancing relationship with Maliphant has resulted in a program called Push, choreographed by Maliphant, which consists of two solos for her, one solo for him, and their hit duet "Push."

When I saw her on March 22 at Sadler's Wells, Guillem seemed at ease with Maliphant's athletic, weighty and hyper-fluid movement style. However, she looks better in the two short solos, in which she is more or less rooted to the spot. She has an edgy, brittle but petulant style which is complimented by Michael Hulls's obscure lighting and Maliphant's sculptural choreography, which takes advantage of her angular frame, lengthy limbs, sinewy back and sharp precision. What she lacks is a spongy quality, a deep muscular fluidity that is specific to Maliphant but also develops from prolonged training in contemporary dance techniques. So much of her movement, while jaw-droppingly virtuosic, seems superficial, and like most ballet vocabulary is about the creation of a final perfect product rather than movement that emanates from a deep-seeded process. In the duet "Push," the differences between Guillem and Maliphant are apparent. While audiences whoop it up and critics talk about the 'chemistry' between the performers, for me it is about Maliphant servicing Guillem, making her look good, like a generous teacher with his demanding pupil. There are some sensational moments like some involving shared weight-bearing and intriguing points of tension when they push and pull against each other, flattered by the lighting; their opposite physicalities briefly compliment each other, but the relationship is fundamentally not an equal one, with Maliphant for the most part supporting Guillem, patiently carrying her around stage like a humbled lion displaying its difficult antelope prey.

Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan in a duet from "Sacred Monsters," seen recently in London and up tomorrow and Sunday at Cal Performances in Berkeley. Tristram Kenton photo copyright Tristram Kenton and courtesy Cal Performances.


"Sacred Monsters," directed by Khan with choreography by him and by Lin Hwai Min and Gauri Sharma Tripathi, consists of solos and duets for Guillem and Khan in a more light-hearted vein than Push. 'Sacred Monsters,' a name that was used in 19th-century France to refer to certain stars of the theater, is aptly applied to choreographer/dancer Khan and dancer Guillem, who have both basked in success and fame. Two big egos meet on stage and through movement, text, and some boisterous comedy exchange their thoughts about their childhoods, influences and careers. When I see them at Sadler's Well on April 18, they are accompanied by an outstanding collection of multinational musicians and singers who perform spiritual but feisty music by Philip Sheppard, and are enveloped by a white 'Zen' stage design by Shizuka Hariu.

Guillem confesses during her performance that she worries sometimes that her dancing career is 'futile,' before concluding that if it's not negative then it must be positive, while Khan confesses his neurosis about always wanting to look like the playful Indian god Krishna so that he could perform Kathak well. He informs us that Krishna is always depicted as having lots of dark curly hair, bemoaning that he himself is bald. Khan's solution, therefore, he explains in his casual chatty style, is to find Krishna deep inside his body and his dancing.

Guillem performs a solo, choreographed by Lin Hwai Min, in which she is depicted discovering the freedom of contemporary dance and the uncertainties of childhood while Khan explores the potential of Kathak in his solo, choreographed by Gauri Sharma Tripathi. Guillem has a cool, bobbing, wispy way of moving which makes her seem hesitant about the choreography she is communicating, although frequent virtuosic tricks bring admiring gasps from the audience and return her to her star status. Khan is mesmerizing in his solo -- expressive, grounded and unbelievably fast in his execution of turns and spins. Throughout the performance his movement flows from within, whereas hers -- as in "Push" -- is on the surface and, to me, unconvincing.

At times Khan and Guillem appear like two children trying to live up to the expectations of parents and teachers, and there is a welcome playfulness in one of their duets, in which they slide into slapstick, showing off and enacting disagreements. They share a more equal relationship than Maliphant and Guillem through these power struggles and Guillem comes across as a more likeable, sympathetic character, especially when she talks. She rises to the challenge of speaking on stage and does so with humor and personality that finally begins to show in her dancing, where it was absent before.

Their second duet verges on the soppy and is an East meets West cliché. Guillem clings to Khan's compact torso with her legs round his waist, hangs down his lower body and waves her delicate arms, while he undulates his muscular arms, his rooted strength emphasizing her fragility. On the one hand they conjure up an image of a symbiotic, harmonious creature, perhaps even a fertility god, but on the other a problematic stereotype of the brown Bengali holding up the white European rose. Do they think they can escape so easily from that tricky issue of white power and black subjugation?

"Sacred Monsters" shows up the strengths and weaknesses of both performers, with moments when it wins me over and moments when it jars; but I can't stop wondering whether this joint venture is just another exotic opportunity for our extraordinary celebrity ballet 'guest.'


Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan reprise "Sacred Monsters" tomorrow and Sunday at Cal Performances in Berkeley, California.

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