There’s been a clutch of middle-aged danseuses taking leave of life in one way or another recently. We’ve seen the abject (Mariinsky star Diana Vishneva’s solo show at the Coliseum) and the magnetic (Alessandra Ferri mournfully channelling Virginia Woolf at the Royal Ballet). A fortnight ago, the Paris Opéra’s aristocratic Aurélie Dupont retired from the stage in one of her great roles, as did American Ballet Theatre’s stellar women Paloma Herrera and Xiomara Reyes in New York.
For top ballerinas and their fans it’s a harsh act of killing, a flower cut off in its fullest bloom. Darcey Bussell has said she sank into depression when she retired at 38, which lifted only when she returned to showbiz and telly. Sylvie Guillem took a more characteristic option at that age, pushing on from classical ballet into contemporary dance, a lodestar for new choreography. In fact, she’s had a generative effect on British dance over the past dozen years not unlike that in the US of Mikhail Baryshnikov, lucky us.
And now, it might not have escaped your attention, Guillem has also started saying goodbye. Her farewell tour, Life in Progress, opened at Sadler’s Wells last week, though the farewell will be a long one with three more visits to Britain — to the Coliseum, the Edinburgh Festival and Birmingham — and 30 more performances before the very last curtain call in December, in Japan.
Inevitably, her wish to build her last meal around new work from some favourite choreographers was going to put heavy pressure on those choreographers, and unfortunately Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant, who have created some excellent pieces with Guillem, have been overawed by the occasion here.
Khan’s solo for her, technê, is the more disappointing. Set under a white mesh tree, its talking point is a very peculiar little squatting scuttle for Guillem, aged 50, in a grey savage-child tunic and a Mowgli wig, which somehow makes her look like R2-D2. There are flecks of Khan’s kathak imagination in the beautiful fingerwork (the one area of her art in which it seems to me Guillem has visibly improved herself), but also a jarring note of the clichéd as she judders like a cartoon creature being shaken by the thuds of some expert beatboxing. It would be a surprise if this solo doesn’t evolve somewhat during the tour.
Maliphant offers up his first-ever female duet, Here & After, as a libation to Sylvie, but it’s snoozily similar to his trademark pattern of an achingly slow build-up from stillness to fast and down again. The edgy male battling that usually lurks at the heart of his danceworks is here smoothed into a rather polite girls’-night-in, glowing in Michael Hulls’s bathtime lighting and rainsticks music from Andy Cowton. I wish that Maliphant’s wife Dana Fouras, a dancer of massy substance and magnificent flamenco arms, had been Guillem’s partner in the work, rather than the anonymously graceful Emanuela Montanari.
Another wish would be that Guillem had cast herself in some William Forsythe. The bill’s frabjous little Forsythe duet Duo — a 19-year-old set of sketches done to a turn by two muscly armed, quick-witted men from Forsythe’s company — evokes his mesmerisingly tricky gift to her in 2011, Rearray, a duet for her and Nicolas Le Riche. It’s as Forsythe’s girl that she will always finally be remembered.
I find it a great, sad mystery that Guillem’s legacy does not include any visible trace inside the Royal Ballet in which she blazed for 15-odd years, eclipsing all others with her questions and work ethic. In the final programme of the Royal Ballet’s 2014–15 season — a combination of two dances by Jerome Robbins and Kenneth MacMillan’s epic Song of the Earth — a largely wretched matinee cast in In the Night threw no credit on the Royal’s work ethic. Two of the three couples (I spare the polished Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli) produced a shambolic parade of fumbled lifts and slipshod footwork, so no artistic evocation was possible of Robbins’s tissue of romance.
Still, we did see an exceptional performance of Afternoon of a Faun, in which Robbins in 1952 so teasingly reworked Nijinsky’s naive goat-child as a boy dancer in a ballet studio, whose languid idling and preening before the mirror (ie, us) is interrupted by a girl dancer equally bent on admiring herself. Fresh, unselfconscious Vadim Muntagirov and blonde sex bomb Melissa Hamilton turned that studio into an elliptically dangerous place for 11 minutes.
Praise, too, for heartfelt Laura Morera in Song of the Earth as the woman facing the end of life, but the largest bouquets were due to the Royal Opera House orchestra and singers Katharine Goeldner and Tom Randle. I found this a richly detailed and moving Mahler experience conducted by Barry Wordsworth, finishing on a splendid high his up-and-down tenure as the Royal Ballet’s music director, whose highlights I find I recall more in 20th-century music than 19th-century.
It goes to show what a demanding business it is to be a ballet conductor; you get noticed only in the gaps when the choreography and performing either fall down or markedly point back at the music. I remember a superb Firebird in Birmingham; and here some really fine Debussy and Mahler — hats off, Barry.