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Dancing Without a Net

September 18, 2009
by Katherine Luce
Image source: Tristram Kenton

Two stars with contrasting styles take a mutual risk in Sacred Monsters.

Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan have no need, at this point in their careers, to take risks, but this is exactly what their collaboration Sacred Monsters does. French ballerina Guillem is considered by many to be the best in the world. A protégée of Rudolf Nureyev, she is technically impeccable and plumbs the depths of each role she undertakes; she wants the audience to feel something profound, even uncomfortable, when they see her dance. British-Bangladeshi choreographer Akram Khan, already internationally known at 32, combines his mastery of the classical Indian dance form kathak with a contemporary approach, working with partners as diverse as the National Ballet of China and French actress Juliette Binoche.

Presented by Cal Performances May 5 and 6, Sacred Monsters displays what happens when two extraordinarily gifted people just won’t do what everyone expects of them. It is a 75-minute two-person work; Khan and Guillem are alone on stage, on a spare set, barefoot, and in ordinary clothes. The many differences between them—in physique, dance style, even personality— are indelible. Khan is short, powerfully muscular, and bald; he can literally move faster than the eye can follow. Guillem is taller, thinner, with long red hair; she is famous for her extreme flexibility as well as her strength. Their differences extend to their dance traditions: ballet emphasizes lightness, soaring leaps, and, often, a superhuman ideal of perfection. Kathak is a storytelling art form with roots in both Hindu and Muslim religious traditions; it keeps close to the ground, moves quickly with twirling turns, and has complex rhythms. It emphasizes flawed humanity instead of idealization. Khan looks for perfection inside imperfection, while Guillem is driven to reach perfection in everything she dances.

Guillem has said that she will no longer appear with England’s Royal Ballet, where she has been principal guest artist since 1989, so she can concentrate on contemporary works. Some of her recent activities take her far from tutus and tiaras; Push with Russell Maliphant required her to become acquainted with the Brazilian martial art, capoeira. She is 42 and most ballerinas retire in their early 40s; they don’t turn from the rigors of Swan Lake to other types of dance that are just as hard on their bodies.

Khan is not afraid to move beyond familiar methods of choreography that have served him well. His earlier dances started with a story— farmers being evicted from their lands in India, or his experience of watching a man die on a train. Now, he doesn’t know what a dance is going to be about before he starts working on it. Emailing from Taipei, where his Lost Shadows for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre premiered at the end of March, he describes this change: “Before, I would go into the process doing a lot of research and preparation. But more and more, I like to go into a studio not knowing what I will begin with, but following my instincts once I get into the studio with the dancers.” The resulting dances aren’t purely abstract explorations of how bodies move in space and time, but they don’t just tell a story either.

Sacred Monsters is a true collaboration, something that’s really hard to pull off when two skilled people have different opinions. Khan writes that “for me collaboration is not to tell a collaborator what to do, but to propose your vision first and then to listen to them and to hold their hands through the darkness to find the way together. But when we arrive at a point where both the collaborator and I want to take different directions to each other, we arrive at a situation based on the art of compromise, negotiation, and trust.”

For Khan and Guillem to come together from their different worlds and create something that speaks to the core of each of them, they had to find some common ground. They share the discipline of classical training and a love for the freedom of the contemporary style, and this is where Sacred Monsters started. Khan writes that it began with “our childhood fantasies, and also the parallel experiences we both had in the classical world, and the similar experiences of our shift into the contemporary world.” The title refers to the monsters they become when they dare to leave their classical disciplines. It also refers to their fame: it’s a translation of monstres sacrés, an epithet applied to 19th-century celebrities such as actress Sarah Bernhardt because of the cult of fame surrounding them. And Guillem, frankly, does have a reputation as a bit of a diva.

Sacred Monsters is partly autobiographical: it includes monologues for Guillem and Khan developed from interviews about the “childhood fantasies” Khan mentioned. Onstage, Guillem talks about other children calling her “Sally” (as in Charlie Brown’s sister) and about teaching herself Italian through comic books. Khan tells how he felt about losing his hair. The monologues make these superb artists seem more human.

Sacred Monsters also includes a solo for each dancer/choreographer, a tribute to their history. Khan’s is stunning, a kathak solo by Gauri Sharma Tripathi, who has been choreographing classical solos for Khan for several years. Guillem’s solo is not classical—maybe that would be too easy for her—though it uses the abilities she developed as a classical dancer. Choreographed by Lin Hwaimin of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, it’s modern dance using Asian traditions, a new and challenging way of moving for Guillem.

I wrote asking Khan what surprises he found during the development of Sacred Monsters, and he replied, “I feel the final surprises came once we were on stage together, because we both felt confident to feel things, rather than follow set things, so there are always moments where we improvise.” Improvisation, the art of making things up as you go along, is common in kathak dance but completely foreign to the tightly planned movements of classical ballet, and it is what both these artists have chosen as they move into the future.

Sacred Monsters is partly about Khan and Guillem as people, but it’s also about them as dancers: how can they combine their different bodies and histories so they can really dance together, without losing their individuality? Late in the piece, Guillem and Khan dance intertwined, Guillem’s feet never touching the ground. Maybe this represents the point where their different experiences unite in a dance that is neither kathak nor ballet but uses everything the dancers know from their past, acting out the union of their unique experiences.

From the May June 2007 New Food and Farming issue of California.

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