Sunday, 15 November 2015


I was in New York yesterday evening to see Sylvie Guillem's farewell performance. Guillem is one of the great dancer of the past thirty years. Her career has been remarkable both for its brilliance, and for the determination she has shown in charting her own path as a dancer and performer. She has danced as a star in all the great ballets, but has devoted most of the past decade to contemporary ballet. Her work is breathtaking in its scope and originality.
Guillem has just turned fifty, and, with the same clarity of purpose that has marked all her career decisions, has decided to stop dancing. Yet she is not showing any decline in skill. Her performance yesterday was a masterpiece of virtuosity, her technique unparalleled, her famously athletic body still dazzling in the shapes it achieves, seemingly without effort.
As she writes herself in the program notes: "Why stop? Very simply, because I want to end while I am still happy doing what I do with pride and passion."
Performance relies on the body and the mind, and depends on the faculties of both. All performers live in anxiety of the failure of their tools: the body slows down, the muscles become less strong, the voice breaks. The mind fails. Dancers and opera singers are particularly aware of this, yet it affects all performers. A pianist known in her youth for extreme virtuosity may find as she ages that her playing must change. The fingers are less strong, the tendons tighter, and the spectacular brio of youth is gone. Yet the pianist is not necessarily done: a new maturity of playing, a new voice can emerge, as the performance changes to adapt to the new reality of the body. I remember hearing two recordings of the great violinist Heifetz playing the same concerto, once in his thirties, once on his final concert in his 80s. There was a noticeable difference in the playing. The youthful performance was brilliant and assured, yet the performance at 80, slower, perhaps a little more tremulous, had found a new depth of lyrical expression to the music. Perhaps, when virtuosity is insufficient, the performer must find new richness in the work.
Guillem's choices of pieces yesterday reflected this. They highlighted precision, athleticism, and shear physical expressiveness of her dancer' body. In the first piece, choreographed for her by Akram Khan, she crawled onto stage, and then reproduced her career before our eyes: her body growing expressing ever more technique. She explored the meaning of performance for her, and in doing so, entered a strange, uncanny space. Her human body became inhuman, the years of practice and the natural talent allowing to explore spaces that our bodies cannot enter. I watched as she lay on the floor in a posture that highlighted her over extended elbows and hyper flexible hips, and it was a strange thing. Virtuosity is other worldly. Yet the concern with the meaning of years of practice was a concern of maturity, of the artist wondering what it is they have done. Her other two pieces of the first half, where she danced with other dancers, seemed to me tinged with anxiety about the difficulties of collaboration. In one, Guillem appeared only for the briefest instant to disturb an exquisite, tense pas de deux between two male dancers, who kept coming into and out of phase with each other, ending sequences of steps in the same pose, but taking different paths to get there, and then sometimes seeming to attack each other. Was this a meditation on the frustrations of collaboration, and perhaps, the dangers of assuming one's centrality on the stage, and ignoring all that has gone on before you entered? In another piece, she performed a frantic duet with another female dancer while a dazzling light pattern redefined the shape of the stage constantly. Sometimes the dancers tracked the shifting lights, sometimes they didn't, yet always they moved as pair. Was this about succession and legacy?
In the final piece, entitled simply "bye", Guillem danced alone. This almost seemed a private dance (obviously it was not). And when she was done, she simply walked into a crowd, and vanished.
Guillem called the show "life in progress". That title acknowledges many things: that her life is not over because she has ceased dancing, and so by extension, that her life is not co extensive with her dancing (after all, she was once not a dancer, and existed as such). As scientists and academics, we too need to ask how long we wish to perform, and recognize that our life is not co-extensive with our work. And we too can think about how our performance changes as youthful virtuosity gives way to the techne gained through maturity.
Like performers, there is little reason to do academic science if we are not happy doing it with pride and passion. And like performers, deciding to end doing science does not mean deciding to end living.