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Sylvie Guillem & Akram Khan

'Sacred Monsters'

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

September 23, 2006 -- Sadler's Wells, London

“Kathak” means “to tell a story”, and so with “Sacred Monsters” an autobiographical story is offered. Presented at Sadler’s Wells on 23 September 2006, “Sacred Monsters” is an autobiographical telling from dance artists, Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan, revealing what it is to be perceived as and to perceive “Sacred Monsters”. Program notes and the dance work itself offered many metaphors and meanings for “Sacred Monsters.” In essence, underlying these understandings, this work affords the audience a glimpse and the artists a performative space to illustrate in verbal and non verbal text, perspectives on individual processes to achieve ideals of perfection; what it is for a life given to embodying ideals. We are offered instances, reminiscences and significant epiphanies within the lived experience of these artists, in which questions are posed as a response to crisis or contemplation of these ideals. “Sacred Monsters” is a conversation with the audience as witness, at times silent or with muted responses, and, at this performance, giving a standing ovation for the artists’ particular kind of dialectic regarding their livelihood. A dance work of self inquiry, self indulgent perhaps, maybe even self congratulatory, but not without integrity and honest revelations to be considered by all those who give a life time and aspire to achieve comparable ideals of perfection.

Program notes advise of the several meanings of Sacred Monsters, given to “stars” by the adorations of audience and media but, as Guillem explains, the stage is her Sacred Monster; a space in which her classical training and status enables her to be perfect, divine, or, in the words of Martha Graham, “an Acrobat of God living up to her own and everyone else’s extraordinary expectations.”

The audience’s and the artists’ own adoration of their feats of grace is only part of the conversation. A dichotomy arises as Khan explains when classical training becomes both the point of reference and a space to differ; “the classical world offers you tradition, history, discipline, something very sacred and spiritual;” while his contemporary experience offers a “science laboratory” where he can explore numerous possibilities. Khan relishes this in between space, “the middle,” where he can be enlightened by his lived experience as a phenomenal Kathak exponent and contemporary dance practitioner, but only if he dares to allow himself to be free. In “Sacred Monsters”, Khan contemplates possibilities, how he can span the gap; to not do what is expected. Khan’s inquiry sources out answers to transform and transcend. “Sacred Monsters” answers, not with bravado or virtuosic movement eccentricities, but with eloquently spoken text and specially honed movement that responds to pertinent questions posed in the conversation between Khan, himself and the audience.

The musicians’ position is downstage right. The set, designed by Shizuka Hariu, is white and rippled resembling paper mache. A suspended portion begins over the heads of the musicians, who are positioned downstage right, and stretches as a flag would from stage right to stage left. A larger portion sits stage left on the ground and is concave, the deepest hollow facing the audience in a somewhat downstage right angle. A gap exists between these two portions, on the ground and in the air, providing a visual metaphor for this dance as its protagonists seek an inbetween-ness to reflect, experiment and refine.

The dance opens with Phillip Sheppard sitting stage left with cello laid on its side in front of him. A violinist, Ailes Sluiter, is positioned just upstage of Sheppard. Guillem stands just stage left of centre with what appears to be a rope held in her hands draped in front of her legs Khan is upstage left as vocalist Juliette Van Peteghem enters. All are placed within the space but casual walks relocate each in his or her performance area. Peteghem begins with a single syllable, not quite a word but a sound, as the violin begins to play then the cello joins. Guillem also joins this lilting score of strings and vocalisation. Peteghem begins a rhythmical Kathak stomp as Khan joins. Khan elaborates with improvised rhythm with bells on his ankles making a rippling sound; his arms and hands a flurry of undulations as the feet pat the earth in varied rhythms. Peteghem stands behind Guillem, removing Guillem’s microphone. Khan’s gesture in arms and feet become more intricate and quick.

From the beginning, musicians move and dancers sing; sharing, crossing genres, crossing cultures, laying the foundation for voice, music and movement language transformation. Khan’s monologue is directed to the audience, discussing questions of which he believes there are only two solutions; either he should be obedient or set about discovering his own answers. Guillem drops her rope, the rope a metaphor indicating both a connection and entrapment. Khan’s monologue and Guillem’s gesture are a metaphor for inquiry regarding prescriptions sagaciously enforced in their life’s work. Peteghem retrieves the rope as Guillem reaches into space; or, is it a gesture to indicate escape? Guillem’s solo, choreographed by Lin Hwai Min, is a collage, brush strokes of lines and circles that extend and entangle, attitude turns into knee turns and knee work that hints at sharing between contemporary and classical training. Guillem’s postures on one leg expose this sharing, having a rooted-ness associated with more earth bound dance practices. There are curls into the floor and standing postures that are as long as Guillem’s toes and fingers can reach; her long glances seeming more introspective, not projective and not as sprawling as the reach of her legs and arms. This solo seems a movement explanation, a possible answer to the questions posed in Khan’s monologue; an opportunity to alter embodied perfection to render difference; to find alternative ways of knowing movement.

The lighting by Mikki Kunttu assists a transition for Khan to relate his dilemma as a young Kathak dancer aspiring to be Krishna. Krishna is most often pictured in blue with long curly hair. Khan desires to become this vision of perfection; to embody this appearance as well as movement knowledge. The stage awash in white light, Khan begins his Kathak solo choreographed by Gauri Sharma Tripathi. Beginning with a movement metaphor of broken arm gestures that seem to symbolise the tribulations of imperfection, Khan confronts his Sacred Monsters of self analysis. A perfect position is skewed as the arm drops out of place again. Khan retrieves the perfect position only to lose another bit of it. These gestures are done with increasing tension perhaps indicating Khan’s frustration and strife to achieve ideals: those perfect positions as epitomised by Krishna. This solo continues with movement language of Kathak with brief hints of contemporary sensibilities. Arm gestures and etched hands extend from a spiralled back. Quick hand gestures attached to brisk turns always at the behest of the rhythm accompany fast foot work and spins from upstage left to downstage right. One phrase includes a steady stream of rhythmical feet gyrating on the floor with the opening motif. Arm gestures break and drop, reach as from the beginning with fast feet travelling on a diagonal; a polycentric feat as appendages perform opposing rhythmical phrasing. This solo illustrates crisis, a movement portrayal of the questions posed in Khan’s opening monologue. This solo is not just an opportunity to express what is confronted in the process to embody perfection. It is an attempt to dissolve personal obligatory boundaries, face “Sacred Monsters” and refine alternative possibilities.

An interlude ensues as Guillem brushes her hair and braids it as Khan takes off his ankle bells; the singer and strings provide a light ambiance of sound. Khan speaks again of his dilemma of trying to be Krishna and relates that he will “find Krishna within me”; Guillem states he is a “beautiful bald Krishna”. A duet starts with simple hand holding enabling rippling sequences with both looking eye to eye. Face to face they entangled, crisscross, wipe each other around but always circle around and about each other; small steps make transitions to alternative space crossing the stage with full body rolls. This develops into feigned touches of Khan’s head and hands to Guillem’s chest and hips that result in percussive, violent reactions in Guillem’s body as Khan thrusts forward. It would appear that Guillem has become the antagonist in the dichotomy Khan is seeking to resolve.

Laying downstage centre, Guillem’s monologue is another metaphorical look at Sacred Monsters. Performing a movement fragmentation motif similar to Khan’s, Guillem’s gestures are with both arms and legs but more contorted. Guillem relates her experience of learning Italian from a Charlie Brown children’s book. Her favourite character is Sally, Charlie Brown’s precocious little sister who from Guillem’s perspective, hurdles over and around the futility of life with whimsy. Guillem seems to acknowledge with this metaphor that she knows what must be given up for her art and has decided that it’s not so bad. Guillem has faced her Sacred Monsters on stage and within and has found acquiescence.

Another more mechanical duet is performed which seems a contest of will and physicality between Guillem and Khan. This duet finishes with Khan on his knees. The following solo for Khan begins with arm gestures accompanying full body lifts from the knees onto the toes followed by collapses onto knees. Khan asks verbally intermittently “Is this right?” Illustrating crisis, Khan’s Sacred Monsters prevent him from finding the acquiescence Gulliem has achieved and celebrates. This solo is a further development of Khan’s dilemma in his quest to embody Krishna. If the quest is to embody Krishna, is one disrespectful when explorations deconstruct, redefine or dissolve the perfection one is seeking to become? Khan’s inquiry seems ontological and his several solos, an empirical investigation into being; alternate means to experience solutions.

Khan centre with arms exquisitely placed, Guillem approaches and assists him to stand. As they entwine and encircle, they build a physical sculpture. There is sameness and difference seen simultaneously in this image with Guillem the one who empathises and Khan the one who seeks answers. She is clamped around his waist, his feet the roots of their tree of investigation; this metaphor an affirmation that both will always be that from which they have come. There is a knowing between them that has been nurtured in the making of “Sacred Monsters”; the interaction of their separate worlds a rare insightful phenomenon for performers and witnesses. The final duet is a further development of this exchange; Guillem performing Kathak type moves and Khan performing more contemporary lyrical-ness. They share nuances, inferences from different worlds using different strategies to endeavour and explain reflections on Sacred Monsters for themselves and those who would listen. They have exchanged sentences like they have exchanged movement and diction, all of which are ways to pronounce with body and words what it is to be a Sacred Monster. They revealed that each in her or his own way will seek alternative and separate truths to answer questions posed in this conversation.

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