Interview: Akram Khan – Sylvie Guillem: Life in Progress

This article is from 2015

Interview: Akram Khan – Sylvie Guillem: Life in Progress

Photo: Bill Cooper

‘People say they love to dance, but with Sylvie you see the reality and proof of it’

Sylvie Guillem is no stranger to the creative process. A professional dancer at Paris Opera Ballet since the age of 16, followed by an illustrious career with companies around the world, she’s met her fair share of choreographers.

But, having turned 50 in February this year, Guillem’s dancing career is finally coming to an end. Which means somebody had to be the last person to create work for her – and that somebody just happened to be acclaimed UK choreographer Akram Khan.

‘I was a little bit burdened by the weight of this being the last creation she would ever do in her career,’ he says. Then he pauses, reflects, and re-phrases. ‘No, not a burden, it was an honour. It was an interesting burden, but I was very aware that this was the last time.’

At 40, Khan feels he too is facing the end of his dancing career, but claims he ‘definitely won’t continue’ as long as Guillem. A childhood gymnast before switching to ballet, Guillem has always been known for her remarkable flexibility – but staying at that level comes at a price, physically.

‘People say they love to dance, but with Sylvie you see the reality and proof of it,’ says Khan. ‘Who else would be willing to dance with such constant pain? After 35, everything takes longer to recover, and she’s still dancing at 50. That’s an incredible amount of commitment and stubbornness – because you have to be stubborn to say “no” to your body when it wants to stop. What that reveals is her absolute love for dance, for the stage and for performing.’

Alongside works by Russell Maliphant, Mats Ek and William Forsythe, Guillem’s Edinburgh International Festival show will feature Khan’s Techné. It’s not the first piece he has choreographed for her – the duo worked on Sacred Monsters together in 2006 – but this time, things felt a little different.

‘When I first worked with her, there was a sense of “oh wow, I’m working with Sylvie Guillem, what a wonderful opportunity”,’ recalls Khan. ‘And when you work with somebody in the beginning, there’s so much formality, which sometimes gets in the way.

‘But this time it was very different, because we know each other so well, so it was much more direct.’

Another major difference for Khan, was the move from duet to solo. Both Khan and Guillem performed Sacred Monsters together – Guillem dances Techné alone.

‘My body comes with its own ego, so when you take that out, I can then just focus on Sylvie,’ explains Khan. ‘So Techné was all about Sylvie and her interests, in particular her connection with nature and her being an ecology activist.’

All those who watch Guillem on stage agree – she’s one of a kind, the foremost ballerina of her generation, a trailblazer for female dance. But what about those, like Khan, who have worked with her, who have seen that amazing body up-close, heard Guillem talk about her craft. What do they attribute to her success?

‘The first thing is her incredible physical facility – that’s a gift,’ says Khan. ‘And I think gymnastics when she was younger helped her a lot, on a mental level, because she applies the same rigour as athletes do.

‘But facility alone isn’t enough. Sylvie is an athlete – but she’s not just an athlete, she’s a storyteller. And the combination of the two makes her very unique.’

Festival Theatre, 473 2000, 8–10 Aug, 7.30pm, £14–£50.

Sylvie Guillem – Life in Progress

  • 5 stars

Hailed as one of the greatest dancers of her generation, Sylvie Guillem embarks on her final world tour, in a programme that features new works by Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant and existing creations by Mats Ek and William Forsythe. Guillem began training at the Paris Opera Ballet School in 1977, and in 1981 joined the…