CLASSICAL DANCERS FINISH each class with a réverènce – a stylised bow. Its purpose is to practise the formal bows taken at curtain call, when the dancer acknowledges the applause from the audience. It is the courtly gesture that signifies the performance is over.

Sylvie Guillem is taking a year-long réverènce in the form of her final world tour. New York, London, Paris, Athens, Edinburgh … she finishes in Tokyo on 20 December. Late August it was Sydney’s turn to see her for the precious last time in the farewell program she has called Life in Progress.

Ms Guillem has spent the last 10 years ‘learning and experiencing’ (in her words) contemporary works. Her uncompromising swansong features pieces by 4 of contemporary dance’s most revered choreographers: Mats Ek, William Forsythe, Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant. They are her friends and trusted collaborators and the program could hardly be more representative of her artistry.

Well …  It would be impossible for this tour to be the very best she has ever done. The moments of astonishment (In the middle, somewhat elevated with Forsythe, 1987) or bold experimentation (Sacred Monsters with Khan, 2006) have passed. But the program makes for a lovely evening of work nonetheless, and one suffused with poignancy. She is dancing as beautifully as ever.

technê

The show opens with Ms Guillem scuttling in a crouch into a darkened stage with a wire-frame tree in the middle and 3 musicians at the back. From the outset the choreography is awkward and jerky and fast. Certain arm movements extend out to her extraordinary hands in flashes of sculptural beauty. The best steps in the piece are startling, strange and other-worldly.

This is Khan’s contribution and it was choreographed specifically for the tour. But it seems obscure and the circling and touching of the slowly turning tree at the end is corny. The music has more natural flow and purpose than the dance.

In the program notes Khan says, ‘I am interested in the moment at which performance becomes memory …’ He is talking of the body of the dancer carrying the lives of all it has described. Memory in performance works differently for the viewer for whom there is that evanescent point at which the steps recede. As you watch, the performance is always slipping away from you. You are already forgetting what you have seen.

Fifteen minutes after the house lights were dimmed, they were up again. The woman on my left resumed her conversation with her companion directly where she left off: ‘Tuesdays are nice because I get off work at 3.’

Duo2015

2 boys at the edge of the stage. The program notes describes Duo2015 as ‘a clock composed of 2 dancers.’ The movement starts in silence and there is an acute sense of timing as Vladimir and Estragon watch each other to keep time. Gradually their breathing becomes noticeable and creates a rhythmic accompaniment. The music, when it arrives, shimmers almost below the threshold of awareness. It’s like a hum.

The movement is mesmerising. The dancers, Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, twist their bodies into fascinating distortions. There are snatched glimpses of the danseur noble in some positions. Sometimes the dancers are stuck and move around a fixed point. Then the movement flows with lithe softness. Sometimes the impulse is pushed from one part of the body to another.

There is a playful sense of improvisation and cheeky chappy humour. The boys seem to be having fun.

The audience is engrossed. In a couple of places they laugh. And all the while the music is quietly there. When the lights go up this time, I hear talk of the steps and the action.

Duo2015 is the work of William Forsythe, which is why there is a bedrock of classical technique underpinning the experimental virtuosity. It was first performed in 1996 and updated for this tour. Roslyn Sulcas in the New York Times said it was ‘unfortunate’ Ms Guillem did not perform in it. But the boys brought an invigorating energy to ferociously difficult choreography and cheered us all up.

The subliminal music was by Thom Willems, Forsythe’s maestro.

Here & after

Another same-sex duet, this time for Ms Guillem with Emanuela Montanari. Another piece that has been choreographed expressly for this tour, this time by Russell Maliphant.

There is a theme of spinning around a centre in the work. Lots of turning and stopping, renversées, and travelling turns with windmill arms. In places the movements are oddly conventional, old-school contemporary. It’s lovely but not unusually lovely.

The music gradually builds in urgency. There is the sound of a woman breathing hard that evokes anxiety. There is discordant industrial noise. The dancers remain impassive and neutral—spinning, running, holding off-balance—but the mood has darkened. Then somewhere in the second half they become more playful. They make sly eye contact and there is a palpable complicity between them. When they run to the back at the end, it is a genuinely lovely moment.

The lighting is a remarkable component of this piece. It creates multiple imaginative spaces of brief duration and contributes to a sense of moving through a process. The program explains that Maliphant has collaborated closely with lighting designer Michael Hulls since 1994, ‘evolving a language where movement and light are intimately connected.’ That intimate connection elevates this piece to an engrossing theatrical experience. It would have been pretty dull in the studio.

Bye

After the interval we’re back for Bye. Farewell.

Ms Guillem approached Mats Ek about collaborating and this solo is the result. He knew precisely which piece of music he wanted to use: the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op 111, Arietta. And he extracts dance from every last semi-quaver. At one point she does a funny little jump in a square between notes of music. The notes dictate the steps – this is dancing to the music, rather than the music adding tension and atmosphere as it does in Duo2015 and Here & Now.

It is also a character study. The program notes say, ‘A woman enters a room. After a while she is ready to leave it. Ready to join others.’ The woman is a dag. Yellow skirt, purple socks. She brings to mind an Alan Bennett-type character from his Talking Heads series. A life measured out with coffee spoons.

Ms Guillem inhabits the stage. It’s hard to imagine another dancer doing those steps. In conversation with Caroline Baum at the Opera House she said, ‘Bye doesn’t stop. There are always nuances. He [Ek] knows me.’ The choreography has sublimity and awkwardness thrust together in juxtaposition, as there is in technê, but here we see dramatic flow and humanity. There is a purpose that was missing from Khan’s piece. Even the sorrowful headstands with bent twig limbs express compassion. The ending when she puts her daggy shoes back on and goes out to join the others is a little facile, but warm and kind.

Then Sylvie Guillem made her reverènce. The standing ovation was utterly predictable, even when purchasing the tickets. But it was shorter than I expected. A rainy Tuesday night? An all-contemporary bill?

I was close enough to the front to watch her face. This was her last night in Sydney. There have been many last nights so far this year, with a few more to go. She has had a lifetime of standing in front of a large group of people on their feet and applauding, and now she is ticking off those occasions one by one.

There is an old ballet saying, ‘Coming out in the limelight. Going home in the rain.’ Soon Sylvie will be going home in the rain. In conversation she said, ‘I have to face the fact that the thing I really like — to be on stage — will not be there. But I don’t want to find a replacement.’

Another old ballet saying is ‘attack’ as a noun, meaning the quality of energy and commitment a dancer puts into a step. Sylvie’s dancing exudes attack. Whatever happens next, she will bring to it her signature attack. Whatever the weaknesses in tonight’s offering, it was a privilege to witness those leaps, extensions, headstands, spins, scuttlings, limbs, hands and feet, and to stand at the end looking at her looking back out at us, full of emotion.

Photo: Tristram Kenton