As Sylvie Guillem begins to perform Solo, made for her by British choreographer-dancer Russell Maliphant, she unfurls one leg skyward as casually as if she were waving to a friend and instantly brings it down again. The gesture is a little consoling message to fans who like to remember her uncanny virtuosity back in the days when she was a very young étoile in the Paris Opera Ballet or a guest artist with Britain’s Royal Ballet. But Guillem, now 41, has been seeking out new, grownup challenges. The re-imagined Giselle she created for the Ballet of La Scala revealed her as a woman with interesting ideas and a fine sense of dramatic narrative. As a performer, she has turned toward modern dance and choreographers who can both challenge her and illuminate her formidable talents.
The presentation of Maliphant’s Push (a suite of three solos and an eponymous duet) inaugurates a new partnership between London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre and New York’s City Center to facilitate the exchange of dance productions (a version of our recent Fall for Dance series will hit London this coming spring). In Solo, Guillem wears semi-transparent white pants and a bolero by Sasha Keir. Her feet are bare. Muted amber lights on a low-hanging grid turn her short red hair (a wig maybe) into fire. The music—guitarist Carlos Montoya recorded playing a farruca and a seguiriya—occasionally pulls her into a flamenco dancer’s erect, waiting stance, but most of the time, she steps softly, her arms wreathing fluidly around her impelled by the twisting of her shoulders or the bending of her torso. Even when she spins in a circle close to the floor—now on her feet, now on her knees—even when the stamping and clapping of unseen dancers punctuates the guitar’s rhythms, she never loses her composure. You’d think she was boneless, that her limbs were made of silk, her joints moistened with honey. But for a woman who started out as a child gymnast, she performs subtly, almost withdrawn, deeply focused on shaping every move, every dynamic shift, to perfection.
Michael Mulls’s lighting contributes immensely to this stylish program. Maliphant dances Shift in front of a six-paneled backdrop. As he moves serenely and deliberately—a sturdy man with the grace of a big cat—to instrumental music by Shirley Thompson, his shadow mimics him. Another shadow appears, seen from a slightly different angle. These doppelgängers, and more, create the eerie illusion of appearing and disappearing through what look like seams joining the panels. In Maliphant’s 1997 Two, Guillem is constrained by a rectangle of light. As she slowly bends and twists, her lean, muscled back, revealed by a black outfit, catches the light. At the end of the solo, when male voices sing out in Andy Cowton’s score, and Guillem starts lashing her arms around, Hulls makes her gestures leave a trail of green fire in the air. In the first few minutes of the duet Push, the dim lighting reveals Guillem seated on Maliphant’s shoulders. After he has lowered her to the floor in smoothly complex ways and both kneel looking at each other, the stage goes dark. When the lights come up, she’s again on his shoulders. This happens many times, burning that image of idolatry and dependance into our brains.
Another haunting score by Cowton, with echoing quivering vocals by Barbara Gellhorn, adds to the dreamlike atmosphere. Once, Guillem supports Maliphant by the neck when he falls backward, but the rest of the time he lifts her, tilts her, winds her around his body, and assists her in difficult maneuvers that she seems to initiate. Maliphant’s background in contact improvisation surely played a role in devising these supports in which the two dancers stay close together, turning and bending smoothly to create new configurations. Even when they grasp hands and pull away from each other, the action, like that of an archer pulling a bowstring, sends them flying together again.
Compared with Odile Duboc’s duet bolero, 2, seen two weeks ago at the French Alliance, Push has no erotic overtones. You can see Guillem and Maliphant as mistress and servant, or priest and goddess, or simply as two dancers being tender and daring in their work. At one point, Maliphant rolls into the darkness at the back of the stage, and Guillem is left alone. It’s a provocative moment, a possible ending, but he advances and they continue together, a little more athletically. Maliphant seems to prolongs the piece not through formal or dramatic necessity but because he came up with additional interesting movement ideas. This is a cavil I’d guess most of the audience didn’t share the night I saw the performance. They’d have been happy to watch these two beautiful, sensitive artists spool around each other for hours.