With only two performers, no sets and no musicians, Push has paid for itself many times over since its 2005 Sadler’s Wells premiere but its farewell run at the London Coliseum is still managing to pack the house despite top prices of £90.
Russell Maliphant’s martial-arty minimalism and Michael Hulls’s sculptural lighting guarantee beguiling stage pictures but the magic ingredient is Sylvie Guillem. When the French star left the Royal Ballet in 2007 – far sooner than many had hoped – she followed in the footsteps of Baryshnikov, taking her audience with her on her adventures in contemporary dance.
Choreography that might appear desiccated and unappetising in lesser hands was transformed by her starry presence and by her ability to charge the simplest gestures with meaning. She will be 50 next birthday, but her legs can still lash out like a bullwhip and her torso’s sinewy strength lets her fall back with glacial slowness then return to vertical on super-fast rewind.
The four-part programme (100 minutes including an interval) gets off to an attractive start with Solo, in which Guillem, a vision in beaded white chiffon pyjamas and red Beatle wig, invokes the ghosts of her Kitri and Carmen as she dances to Carlos Montoya’s guitar. The Spanish accents – a proud tilt of the head, the melancholy weight of a falling arm – never descend into pastiche but bring welcome flashes of mischief to Maliphant’s familiar vocabulary. Two finds Guillem trapped in a teepee of downlight, hands blazing bright as they penetrate the walls of light enclosing her. The arms flick so fast that the ivory flesh leaves aftertraces on the retina.
The evening ends with Push, a series of carefully counterweighted tableaux vivants. Maliphant’s measured strength allows Guillem to ride side-saddle on the nape of his neck then melt down his back in a gut-wrenching display of core strength (a lesser woman would have made a fitness video long since).
Oddly, there is far more drama in Guillem’s interaction with her audience, with her own persona in the solos than in this 30-minute duet. After nine years of fine-tuning the pair’s symbiotic interdependence is extraordinary but the moves seem purged of the emotional charge you might expect from so close a physical fit. Another partner (Nicolas Le Riche?) might set these measured grapplings alight but Maliphant, doggedly undramatic, is part porteur, part plinth.