Sylvie Guillem, On The Edge / Sur le fil - a portrait
by Françoise Ha Van [88.00]
Author: Sylvie Guillem
Directed by Françoise Ha Van
Produced by Fabienne Tsaï and Marie Descourtieux for À Droite de
la Lune in co-production with Arte France and in association with
Sadler’s Wells, with the participation of France Télévisions
Photography direction by Jean Philippe Bouyer
Sound editing by Alexandre Fleurant
Sound mixing by Vincent Arnardi
Extras: Guillem Over The Seasons [30.00]
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/16:9
Sound format: PCM stereo/DTS 5.1
Menu language: English
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish
Booklet notes by Dominique Frétard in English, German and French
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 073 4544 [118.00]
Sylvie Guillem (born in 1965) is to my mind
the greatest female dancer to have graced the stage of the Royal
Opera House in the last twenty years. While British audiences
always favoured the lovely and also great Darcey Bussell; it must
be said that whatever role Guillem danced, she almost always eclipsed
every other ballerina who performed the same part.
Guillem first trained as a gymnast; then joined the Paris Opera Ballet School in 1977 when she was twelve years old. She completed her studies at the school in 1980 and joined the Paris Opera Ballet (POB) the following year. In 1983, Rudolf Nureyev became POB’s artistic director and Guillem quickly caught his eye. He shook up the company, giving it a new, fresher face by promoting young dancers, obtaining works by famed modern choreographers like Cunningham and Robbins, and commissioning new ballets by contemporary artists such as William Forsythe and Karole Armitage. Guillem benefited from Nureyev’s programme and in 1984, following her role debut in Swan Lake she was promoted to étoile. During her time with POB she created many roles in works from such celebrated and diverse choreographers as Forsythe and Béjart; and danced countless others. However, in 1989, apparently after a disagreement with Nureyev, the strong-minded Guillem left and joined the Royal Ballet where she became a principal guest artist. In London, she danced the leading roles in all of the most popular classics; inherited Fonteyn’s part in the revival of Ashton’s Marguerite et Armand and was unforgettable in the title role in Mats Ek’s Carmen when the Royal Ballet first staged it in 2002.
Guillem possesses a brilliant, impeccable technique, which is attributed by many to her earlier training as a gymnast. Whether this is the case is debatable; the point is that her technique is flawless, pure and fluid; her body has an almost uncanny elasticity, her grace and statuesque elegance are unquestionable and - the icing on the cake - she is also a powerful actress, capable of injecting dramatic intensity, delicate sentiment or sensual innuendo by her movements like no other female dancer before or since.
I am a great fan of Guillem’s artistry and therefore was eagerly awaiting this DVD portrait. I am sorry to say that I was a little disappointed. It starts with a suggestive prologue: a pair of feet stretching lazily on top of a window seal. We naturally assume these are Guillem’s feet and she states that this is what she likes, meaning doing nothing, and that she is a real “lazy bones”! Then, she tells us that she loves the seasons, all seasons, and so we see the credits of the film against images of sand blown in the wind, ice and water. Then it cuts to black and white pictures of swans swimming on a lake, followed by Guillem rehearsing Swan Lake. Finally, we see her as Odette, on stage, during a performance of the ballet. These sequences form the introduction to the main feature documentary and are in black and white, played to Tchaikovsky’s music, which is interrupted by a modern score; a fact that I found irritating. As the footage finishes and Guillem comes to the front of the stage to take a bow, the film changes to colour and it is here that the documentary really takes off. Why black and white was chosen for the beginning is not clear but it appeared to me to be an attempt at showing that Guillem had started to feel “imprisoned” within the classical roles and wanted to explore new ways of expressing herself and new paths in dance; not always obvious and occasionally controversial. So, her new life as an artist begins when she takes her bow hence the change from black and white to colour, symbolising the blossoming of a new artistic career.
After the above described prologue and introduction, what follows is a documentary in chapters of Guillem’s collaboration with Russell Maliphant, Akram Kahn and Robert Lepage who are the artists she chose for her new and sometimes artistically risky ventures. The film takes us through various locations around the world while she is touring, in-between rehearsals for Lepage’s Eonnagata, created especially for her and also involving Maliphant. The connection between the various chapters, apart from the fact that she is touring, is not obvious; there is no linking narrative thread and no clear reason for having these episodes and not other totally different ones. However, once one watches the DVD for the second time, it becomes more apparent: this was filmed during a certain period of time where Guillem toured while also preparing and rehearsing Eonnagata; and this is really the linkage as well as the background between all the chapters. While some of it is very interesting, other parts can be repetitive and boring. As a portrait of a multi-faceted, incredibly talented dancer, I personally found it single sided, only showing us what Guillem is now, why she is exploring new ground and how she feels about it. Even though this was the objective, I felt the film did not quite achieve it. There is no voice-over narrating or commentating, though this role is occasionally fulfilled by Guillem when she shares her thoughts with us. There is however no structured story-telling. On occasions, her comments feel as if they are coming out of nowhere, scattered and not always relevant to what we are seeing. At least, this is the way I perceived them. The episodes of her journey often appear fragmented; the reasons for her choices and why she is collaborating with these artists are never quite clear, and these are aspects that to my mind would have enriched the portrait.
As its title, On The Edge, indicates, the film wants to show the risks that Guillem is taking, artistically speaking. Sadly, it fails to capture one’s imagination or to deliver its aim adequately. Guillem is credited as author, which I assume means that she wrote the script and possibly influenced the contents of the film not only in terms of the pictures but also in terms of the underlying music and sound. Whether this was wise is arguable; I do not think she completely succeeded.
The real highlights and fascinating moments are when Guillem is filmed dancing. Her movements are as beautiful and expressive as they ever were. The fact that she is in her mid-forties does not show; her technical brilliance is all there; the way in which she is able to move still defies belief; her elegance, grace and statuesque posture have not disappeared and, if anything, I would say that these qualities are stronger than ever. However, I felt that there were not enough such moments and, as the end of the film approached, I was left with a feeling of emptiness and unfulfilled expectation.
The main feature, On The Edge, was directed by Françoise Ha Van who does a commendable job and is particularly effective during the dance sequences. The DVD also contains a set of so-called ‘Extras’ entitled “Guillem over the seasons”, which show us excerpts from famous ballets danced by Sylvie Guillem. According to the booklet notes and the DVD marketing slogans, these involve rarely seen backstage footage as well as highlights from Guillem’s acclaimed career, both as ballerina and as contemporary dancer. These Extras are indeed a welcome bonus, as they include a few memorable solos of Guillem in Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote, as well as some marvellous moments with other dancers, namely Nicolas Le Riche and Laurent Hilaire, in Sleeping Beauty and In the Middle Somewhat Elevated, a work where Forsythe created a leading role especially for her.
Overall, this DVD about Sylvie Guillem is interesting though as a portrait it is incomplete. On the one hand, it is fascinating to see how she keeps trying new endeavours and how she is able to re-invent herself as an artist. On the other, the film does not fully achieve its objective of showing us a dancer on the edge, taking great risks. The pace is often too slow; on occasions a little too introspective. I enjoyed it because it is always a pleasure to watch Guillem in action. While it is wonderful to realise that she lost none of her magical way of moving, it is disappointing to have to report that her energy, her excitement at new ways, her colourful artistry were not present. Perhaps, as the author, this subdued, single-sided portrait was Sylvie Guillem’s own idea, in order to enhance her search for new ways of expression through movement. For the viewer, I am sorry to say, particularly if one is an admirer and has seen her on stage many times before, this documentary is insufficient and while it has some great moments, one is left with the impression that it could have been memorable. Sadly, it is no more than mildly curious.