writers on dancing


A la francaise

“Push”, “Solo”, “Shift”, “Two”
Sylvie Guillem & Russell Maliphant
30 September – 3 October 2005
Lyon Opera Ballet
6 & 7 October 2005
“Le Parc”
Paris Opera Ballet
14 – 16 October 2005
all at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

by John Percival
copyright ©2005 by John Percival   

We do get some dance from France fairly often in London, but not enough when you consider how much is happening there in both classical and contemporary modes. So it’s gratifying that this year our annual Dance Umbrella festival is collaborating with AFAA (Association francaise d’action artistique) to present eleven companies spread over five venues and four weeks under the title France Moves. Actually they are cheating slightly since the first offering was not a French company, but it did involve France’s greatest dancer active today: Sylvie Guillem in two premieres with British choreographer Russell Maliphant.

You’ll remember, I hope, how Guillem and Maliphant got on the same circuit: she saw a programme given jointly by his own group and the “Ballet Boyz” Nunn and Trevitt and said she wanted to try his choreography. So first she, he and the Boyz collaborated on “Broken Fall” premiered at Covent Garden; then they did a full evening at (inter alia) Sadler’s Wells; and now comes another full evening at the Wells with just Guillem and Maliphant. And no, it’s not strange for the top ballet star to be spending so much time on modern dance; after all, Nureyev brought a modern influence into the Paris Opera while she was a young dancer there; then she in turn “modernised” the Royal Ballet repertoire and did much new stuff elsewhere—I’ve even seen her bringing a touch of the great German pioneer Marie Wigman back on stage.

And what’s Maliphant like when apart from Guillem? Well, some of us remember him as classical dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet, but then he worked with several modernists before going free-lance, and how he himself has chosen to dance lately was shown on this new bill by his solo “Shift”, created 1996 and now a trademark. No virtuosity—unless we count originality, a sense of quiet power and perfect physical control as virtuosic. At first only his upper body moves, but gradually he travels slowly around, and as he moves we see varying shadows of him projected marvelously on the back wall (you can’t see how it happens—take a bow, lighting designer and regular collaborator Michael Hulls). They are always bigger than him, sometimes almost full stage height, one side or the other, or both, always very sharply defined—and at the end he raises his arms to include them in the applause.

Before this came a new solo for Guillem called just “Solo”. More magic from Hulls, giving her first just a small circle of light, then a pattern of further circles to tempt her round the stage, and varying from the initial amber glow. She, meanwhile, responds to the vintage recorded guitar of Carlos Montoya (farruca and seguiriya) with sudden sharp poses to punctuate the smooth flow of movement, a mix of ballet and Spanish dance all transmuted into the distinctive Guillem manner. (Did I mention that both dancers are dressed in white all evening, and that she wears a short hair style—they say it’s a wig, but exactly in her familiar red colouring.

She completes the first half by repeating “Two”, the Maliphant solo she danced on the previous programme: created in 1998 for his wife Dana Fouras, reworked for Guillem and suiting her perfectly as she revolves in a narrow box of light, hands or arms suddenly brought into focus by her turning.

The second half of the programme is the new duet, “Push”. Like “Two” this is accompanied by (but not danced to) music by Andy Cowton. The dance seems to start about five times over: each time with her sitting or lying across Maliphant’s shoulders in a different posture as they are picked out of darkness, then gradually descending by different manoeuvres. Maliphant is a great one for repetition with variation as the basis of his structures, and in “Push” he investigates, with Guillem, various patterns of balance and counterbalance, support and leverage. The process of composition brought new experiences to both of them. Maliphant says that working with her put many of his choices as choreographer and dancer into a different context which he found stimulating and rewarding, and he thanks her for her courage, her willingness to try out new things, and her patience.

For the audience, the outcome is equally rewarding and stimulating. In fact the whole programme left me (and others, I know) wanting to see it all over again without delay, but that was impossible because all four performances were completely sold out long in advance. So we have to wait as patiently as possible for the further run which Sadler’s Wells artistic director Alistair Spalding promises to work for.

Another French show later the same week left me with no wish ever to see it again. That was “Tricodex” by Philippe Decouflé for the Lyon Opera Ballet. It is the third production he has based on the Encyclopedia of an Imaginary Universe published in 1981 by an Italian, Luigi Serafini. I’d say that any credit attaching to “Tricodex” belongs to Serafini and to Philippe Guillotel who designed the 150 costumes; that’s about five or six for every member of the cast. Curious masks and headdresses disguise them, and strange protuberances are attached to feet, legs, arms, heads or trunks, which they wave, rotate or plod around on, thus suggesting various beasts, insects or trees. Some of women also wear weird tutus, and at one point all fourteen men parade affectedly wearing only trunks. When not busy changing their clothes, the performers affect clumping exits and entrances, pose, swing on wires, sometimes jump about or cartwheel, leapfrog and suchlike. The dance arrangements are trivial, and the music by Sébastien Libolt and Hugues de Courson is banal. Spectacular video projections were promised; what happened to them? I am surprised that the Lyon Ballet’s gifted director, Yorgos Loukos, chose to show such nonsense in London.

The dance director of the Paris Opera’s Ballet, Brigitte Lefèvre, was right however to show Angelin Preljocaj’s “Le Parc” at Sadler’s Wells. Many of that company’s productions are too large for London stages, but this one works here. Created in 1994, it suits the French dancers perfectly with its blend of ancient and modern inspiration and style. I know that not all critics and spectators liked it when shown in America; that’s true here too, and I think that Monica Mason was right to cancel the Royal Ballet production commissioned by her predecessor Ross Stretton —it would not have suited her dancers and I doubt they could have cast it. But this allegory of lust turning into a real relationship looked good—and what a joy it was to see Laurent Hilaire again in the role created on him as the leading man. Such looks, such command—and such technique too, even though he officially retired this year from dancing to become a ballet master. His partner, Aurélie Dupont, was new to me in this role and I would not have guessed how well she would do it. (There was another cast, Laetitia Pujol and, replacing the indisposed Manuel Legris, Yann Bridard, but I couldn’t get to see them.)

It is 23 years since the Paris company was last in London: far too long, but I would hate to be deprived of the reason they provide to go as often as possible to their home city.

First and second: Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant PUSH Photo: Johan Persson.
Third: Céline Talon, Laurent Hilaire in Le PARC. Photo: Jacques Moatti.

Volume 3, No. 38
October 17, 2005
copyright ©2005 John Percival



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last updated on October 17, 2005