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Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan

"Sacred Monsters"

by Toba Singer

May 5, 2007 -- Zellerbach Auditorium, Berkeley, California

Sylvie Guillem puts the body back into “bodisattva” in her crossover collaboration with the esteemed Kathak practitioner, Akram Khan. “Sacred Monsters” is the medium for the meeting of two classical traditions: Ballet and Indian Kathak, where a fluent ionic exchange leaves neither dance form nor dancer quite the same.

A slow rise of the curtain coincides with an equally slow dimming of house lights to the accompaniment of a mournful cello solo. As the stage brightens, we find a cellist, a violinist, a drummer and a singer onstage. The evening’s dance partners stand entwined stage left and behind them is a chasm nearly the width of the Zellerbach stage, flanked on each side with a rough-textured white swath of lathing. Is it a statement about polar icecaps melting, or does it represent the gulf between two equal traditions, or is it the shape of the sexual organ through which most of us enter the world? As the old inkblot joke goes, “They’re your pictures, doc,” and so perhaps it’s just a design that works to present the work, and it does that rather spectacularly.

The movement begins with the couple’s show of shiva-like arms, snaking outward as they find their planar symmetries. Khan then stands alone as he beats out a rhythm with one foot wrapped in bells that accompanies his upper body movements where his arms flow and then slow to a stop.

As an apologia for her life as a sacred monster of ballet (sacred monster being a French synonym for “diva”), Khan explains that there were two choices posed for Guillem by her Paris Opera ballet training: “Do quietly and obediently what you’re told or search for your own answers.” Guillem’s search prompted her to take herself out of the Paris Opera demi-monde with its overly controlling artistic director, Rudolf Nureyev, and become the first to write her own ticket at the Royal Ballet, where she gets to dance no more than 25 times  per season, approves all partners, costumes, ballets and photos that involve her, so that she may tour the world with her own work and simultaneously hold an associate position at Sadler’s Wells. It takes a bona fide contortionist to arrange one’s life to be able to multitask so effectively! Can/should everyone search for his or her own answers? Of course, but with the generous understanding that if you have a preternaturally balletic body, you may find answers that are more satisfying than those who don’t.

Guillem breaks out into a t’ai chi-like series of lunges that then moves into work with the arms where she is scooping air in all directions. She does weight transfers that draw in the back and then suddenly an arabesque seems to shoot out of nowhere and end up in another galaxy. In the background, Khan whispers as the violin comes up and Guillem’s flexed foot punctuates a virtuosic phrase of slow undulations. Now she’s on the floor rolling and she stops on an upswing to let her arms scoop air from the center. Her patient strength is lightened by wonder expressed through outré développés. Khan lowers his arms as the cello rises. He speaks about how going bald caused him to return to Kathak because he knew he would be thrown out of the world of classical ballet. The memory sends him into dervish-like spinning turns that cap the ebbs and flows of music and dance and the high level of integration between chants, steps and notes.

One of the most enthralling enchaînements, if that term is appropriate here, occurs when both dancers take hold of each other’s hands like children playing one of those terrifying centrifugal games where they turn with quick steps, pulling back on their heels, eyes and mouths widening into silent then audible screams, not letting go of each other no matter what! In grade school, my friends Debbie Wiener and Annette Marquéz got into a lot of trouble for having played that game, and I believe to this day that the scariest part for the teacher who chastised them was the intensity of their bond and not the danger that they might fall. As I watched Guillem and Khan, I learned that it still terrifies me! 

Abandoning that game, Guillem sprawls out on the stage, faces the audience and tells about the time she decided to learn Italian while in Milan by using an Italian translation of the children’s cartoon book, Charlie Brown. As she tells the simple but endearing story, she repositions her limbs as if she were rearranging her living room or leafing through the pages of that children’s book, grabbing a part of a limb and casually turning it in the opposite direction or placing it where no other human’s could possibly go. 

Their bodies tell their stories with an intimacy you suspect they would never give quarter to in person, and in the next one, Khan who is shorter than the lanky Guillem who backs him up against an imaginary wall, menaces hers with his. A head threatens a head, or an entire shoulder chases a chest or, open jawed, he stops just short of biting her breast. As he pursues, she races backward and away from him. This is followed by a charming dialogue in Italian about where and where not to place the arms in high first position according to (one presumes) Cecchetti. Then they’re done with that and launch flickering flip book movements where she’s driving. It ends with the kind of rebound you get from a broken spring, rendering her the tragic heroine in a combination that has lasted only a few seconds.

Then we find Khan returning to his lament about classical ballet as he labors on the floor bent over doing bounces, asking as one inevitably does over and over in class, “Is this right? Which hand? Are we allowed to do this?” – that pernicious self talk that never lets up. Next, Guillem leaps onto Khan, her legs gripping his waist. She combrés ba-a-ack and reeeeeaches forward and then they mirror each other’s arms reprising some of the work that opened the show, but from a new perspective – like sculptural stone flowers growing from a single plant. Then they stand parallel and do a series of Humphrey-Weidman fall-and-recover exercises that become bouncing jumps and then go stylized into rope-skipping mime, complete with arms. Guillem opens a discussion on the French word, émerveillé, for which she claims there is no English equivalent. She says she wants to be émerveillé all the time and I am thinking that in English she would want to be “marvelized” or perhaps, as we now are, filled with wonder by all the possibilities.

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