East meets west in a monstrous display

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

One can accept Sylvie Guillem as a monstre sacré: she has the stellar force, the public following, to justify this 19th-century accolade, like Bernhardt or Réjane.

Dazzlingly gifted as he is, Akram Khan is surely too young, too gentle in manner (until Kathak dance seizes him) to need this medal. Yet Sacred Monsters is the title for their collaborative evening at Sadler’s Wells, London, this week, and the gruel is thin. The pretentions are too windy, the staging too damned arch, to justify the promise of blazing temperament and those intoxicating moments (for artist as well as audience) which we have known with the greatest flamenco stars when, as Isadora Duncan said, “the god is with you”.

This Guillem/Khan event is chilly (except when Khan dances), self-conscious and unrelentingly portentous. There is a handsome setting by Shizuka Hariu of two complementary and curving white plastered walls; tedious accompaniment (by Philip Sheppard) mingling Indian music and intermin-able scratchings from violin and cello, and a pair of vocalists, with a chanteuse (in a dress designed for a suicide attempt) who trails over the stage and strikes the occasional Anglo-Saxon attitude. Bare feet are de rigueur.

Guillem is first disclosed to us lengthily immobile, as if frozen while getting ready to have a go with a skipping rope.

Khan dances, and talks. Guillem, later and amusingly, talks too. (Here is a cool, stylish comedienne waiting to be exploited.) A stupefying programme note seeks to enlighten us on the leaden earnestness of the display. What we watch is a weedy, uncomfortable solo for Guillem by a Taiwanese dance-maker; mildly intriguing duets for Guillem and Khan that explore the possibilities of dancing like marionettes, or moving when linked hand to hand, and a relationship between the
two that has the fixed improbability of a glass eye. Musicians and performers seem numbed by their belief that it must all be made “meaningful”.

What justifies the evening is Akram Khan’s blazing Kathak solo, in which his prodigious gift is grandly shown. His speed and variety of muscular pulse, his power to shape long, ravishing phrases of dance, his command of rhythm and its subtlest nuances, his bravura and his truth, make it possible to endure the dim matter of the show.

Sylvie Guillem, who is still, despite being victim to this evening of stifled
choreographic yawns, a fascinating dancer, deserves better.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.