Push | Sylvie Guillem & Russell Maliphant

Push | Sylvie Guillem & Russell MaliphantLeft - Sylvie Guillem & Russell Maliphant. Photo - Johan Persson

In her trademark fashion, with Push, Sylvie Guillem has nudged the boundaries of what constitutes modern dance and raised further poignant questions about where it might go. Certainly, if there is one rebellious, singleminded, renegade driving force that can resolve, hope & promise to answer such questions, it's the blinding Guillem.
Guillem doesn't only stretch herself to her outer limits, but her audiences as well. She takes us on extraordinary journeys deep into our psyches, imaginations and persona. Of course, we can't preoccupy ourselves only with Guillem, for her equal partner in this work is Russell Maliphant, a choreographer and dancer about to retire from the latter pursuit, were it not for Guillem's insistence. He was probably wise to succumb, as I suspect she'd be his equal in an arm-wrestle; or any other contest, for that matter.
Nonetheless, it's Maliphant who we have to thank for every pose, daring (if not downright dangerous) move, idea and arc.
Lighting is dramatic, with complete fades to black before pieces begin. The first was Guillem, solo, to the accompaniment of a Spanish guitar. In this piece we find the passion and rhythms of flamenco, but a non-traditional extension of the genre into the balletic realm. At a glance, the two could hardly seem more mutually exclusive but, between the puppeteering of Maliphant and the wholesale collaboration of Guillem, it's a triumph of the visceral; not a quality, perhaps, so readily associated with ballet. Having said that, it is as easy on the eye as anything you'll see in classical repertoire or contemporary contexts. Indeed, it's this triple-feat (and treat), of the purely aesthetic, the physical, or corporeal, the intellectual & the emotional that sets Maliphant & Guillem clearly apart, above & beyond. In Maliphant, Guillem has found her muse, & vice-versa; it's difficult to imagine any two dancers being more finely attuned and it's this that makes the sensational possible, moment, after moment, after breathtaking moment.
The precision here, and throughout, has to be seen to be believed and the fluidity is like water rushing over riverstones.
Maliphant takes a solo, too, which comprises the second piece. This uses light and shadow in ingenious ways, such that, at times, there appear to be multiple dancers on-stage, effecting different postures; striking different poses. The choreography, indeed, is as much bound up with design & staging, as movement. It's deviously clever and desperately difficult to pull off, but he makes short, light work of it.
Guillem is back for the third and final piece of the first act, again as soloist. In this, she reaches a climax, with limbs whirring & blurring, like the blades of a Black Hawk, about to be airborne.
But if one thinks they take the cake individually, the second act, the lengthy pas de deux namesake of the show's title, gives veritable goosebumps. There is much that is literal to the title; by turns, the pair push and release, in a struggle of art, imitating life; the sublime and agonising challenges of intimacy.
The first movement (if you will) seemed to reference the biblical birth of woman, her separation and distinction from man; the emergence of the feminine. From there, narratively, it appeared to be a meditation on equality & the necessity that love allow freedom and independence. In form and process, these ideas are realised through tension and torsions, twists and turns, with entwined and unravelling bodies, taken to the very limits of human capability; Guillem's, even moreso methinks (if possible), a biomechanical marvel, a freak of nature but, moreover, discipline, rigour and, of an order that can barely, if at all, be imagined, let alone practiced, by ordinary people.
Maliphant has an eye, too, for the dramatic. From blackness, the pair emerge, in a swathe of heavenly light, Guillem perched on his shoulders like a bird nestled in a strong bough. Maliphant  doesn't break; rather, both bend and yield, in deference and faithfulness to the lyrical choreography. This is thinking persons' dance, which completely justifies and explains Guillem's controversial, much-publicised breakaways from both the Paris Opera-Ballet under the luminous directorship of Nureyev, & the Royal Ballet. As esteemed, worthy and pre-eminent as these may be, as such, ironically, they represent the acme of that which Guillem has been trying to escape: the (sometimes, at least) mindlessly imitative, depersonalised, under-individuated world of classical ballet. With Maliphant as co-conspirator, they've arrived at a place not quite ballet & not quite 'modern dance'. It's a rarefied niche, to which many may aspire, but few, if any, will so much as touch the town limits. This, thanks to Maliphant's command of nuance, peerless vocabulary and willingness to extend it, himself and his dancers, search for meaning and the pair's athletic execution of every movement, no matter how complex. In a sense, 'though many of the moves he casts are sheer poetry, literally in motion, even from the most complicated simplicity and elegance emerges. It's this that puts an 'e' in front of every motion and ensures the pieces soar, nourishing heart, mind and soul.
Moreover, this is dance so fast-paced and detailed, only the body itself can remember, know and be relied upon to effect the manoeuvres; danger lurks, every single second, with nor room at all for mistakes. it's al part of the thrill-a-minute action & reaction.
In and through Push, these soulmates merge and meld, physically, intellectually and, above all, instinctively. It's a partnership to rival Vernon and Murphy's, Nureyev and Fonteyn's, or Bogey & Bacall's; a once in a generation, or lifetime, kind of phenomenon.
Some theatrical expositions are very hard to do justice. With Push, it's almost utterly impossible, in words, to begin to reflect the intensity, purity & transcendence of the performance, which had many rising to spontaneous, inevitable, irresistible ovation. Including this cynical critic.

Sylvie Guillem & Russell Maliphant

Venue: Concert Hall | Sydney Opera House
Dates: 15 - 18 April 2009
Times: Wed–Sat 8pm
Tickets: $39.00 to $135.00
Bookings: sydneyoperahouse.com

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