A Ballerina’s Last Steps

By Abigail Cross, FCLC ’19

On Saturday, November 14th, I witnessed French ballet legend Sylvie Guillem’s final performance in the United States. The three evening engagement, from November 12th through the 14th at New York City Center, was part of Guillem’s world retirement tour, entitled “Life in Progress.” The program consisted of works by Akram Khan, William Forsythe, Russell Maliphant, and Mats Ek, contemporary choreographers with whom Guillem has worked with throughout her career.

For years I have regarded Sylvie Guillem’s incredible physical facility with a combination of admiration and envy, as has the rest of the dance world. This night was no different; Guillem’s physicality was front and center. Even at the age of 50, the arch of her feet, the hyperextension of her knees, and the mobility of her hips are unparalleled. During “Bye,” the final piece of the program, a near collision between Guillem’s leg and her nose elicited a quiet, involuntary gasp from the audience. One would imagine that we had grown accustomed to her superhuman abilities by that point. However, Guillem, along with choreographer Mats Ek, still managed to surprise us. The primary source of this surprise was in the unaffected, yet staccato, nature of this particular gasp-evoking battement. With neither warning nor reaction from her serene torso, Guillem’s leg accelerated to from floor to nose, and back again. While the movement was relatively simple, the juxtaposition of rapid motion and stillness made it indelible.

Similarly, the entire performance was marked by the somewhat contradictory marriage of ballet and contemporary. Guillem’s technique is superb, especially pleasing to my ballet-trained eyes. However, she is no gawky ballerina trying on contemporary choreography for size. Her dancing carries the weight of experience. In the first piece, Akram Khan’s “Technê,” much of Guillem’s insect-like movement reminded me of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a far cry from ballet. Yet, even as Guillem lay flat on the stage, staring at the audience with her elbows bent at impossible angles, she maintained a subtle, balletic aura of control. This, among countless other contrasts, made Guillem’s performance entrancing.

Not only was the dancing fascinating, but the themes, especially of the first and last pieces, clearly resonated. The program note spoke for “Technê” spoke to the transient nature of performance in the context of incessantly-passing time. Guillem’s movement into and out of various shapes embodied this constantly fluctuating transience. The overall structure of the piece was Guillem’s circular orbit of the lone set piece on the stage, a metallic tree, which seemed to symbolize time. As the piece progressed, the tree itself began to rotate and to draw Guillem closer to itself. The light then faded from the edges of the stage to the center until Guillem and the rotating tree, in close proximity, were finally consumed by the blackout. I wondered what truly remains after the performance is over, after the curtain is down. I imagine that Sylvie Guillem is wondering the same thing.

As its name belies, the final piece, “Bye,” ended in a relatively abrupt farewell. The piece utilized the medium of film, in conjunction with Guillem’s dancing, to tell a story. The piece began with an image of Guillem moving on a small, white screen. When her recorded, two-dimensional hands reached beyond the scope of the screen, her live, three-dimensional hands suddenly appeared, completing the image. Every movement of Guillem’s likeness that surpassed the screen’s edges was perfectly mirrored and extended by Guillem’s body in real time. The impressive synchronization was seamless. After she emerged from behind the screen, her movement ranged from introspective and uncertain to jazzy and free. Eventually, a crowd of people virtual people accumulated on the screen, and Guillem returned to join them. As the piece came to an end, each of them walked away, getting smaller and smaller, before fading into nothingness. To me, the piece felt markedly unfinished; I wished it could have gone on for hours. This ending accomplished what any dancer wishes to do in the timing of her retirement: to leave the audience longing for more. Without a doubt, Sylvie Guillem has accomplished this in every way.

As soon as this final piece ended, we, the audience, shot to our feet. Cameras flashed as Guillem bowed graciously and repeatedly. The curtain calls were countless, the standing ovation endless. We were not deterred by blackouts or closing curtains. As we continued to applaud, the lights and curtain went back up again, and again, to reveal Guillem running back onstage to bow once more. Our enthusiasm was more than apropos, for we were not simply applauding that evening’s performance. We were applauding the ballerina herself, who has  graced the world’s greatest stages for more than three decades. Goodbyes are always painful, and this one was no different. Sylvie, your incomparable dancing will be missed.