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SACRED MONSTERS: AN INTERVIEW WITH SYLVIE GUILLEM AND AKRAM KHAN

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

LYON, FRANCE, 27 JULY 2007Sacred Monsters, which is best described as a danced conversation between Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan, their musicians and the public, is the second of a trilogy of pas de deux created by the dazzling young Anglo-Indian dancer and choreographer. Each superstars recounts his/her experiences of the classical world in a solo of their own before meeting up in a duet. In between, they chat to each other and to the audience.

"I'd formed my own company in 2000, and by 2004 I was beginning to feel a little trapped", Khan told me recently in Paris where he was giving a master-class. "I don't ever want to become like a machine with an obligation to create a new work for a company each year, and I felt the need to break away. So when Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui suggested we made a piece together, I was only too happy. The result was Zero Degrees which Sylvie Guillem came to see, apparently several times, and when we finally met, we started discussing my work. When she told me that it made her nervous, I was so disarmed that I spontaneously asked her to come and work in a studio with me and the result is this piece about us both, a blend of classicism with contemporary, which is more poetical and mysterious than Zero Degrees."

"I realised that our only similarity lay in the fact that we are so different", he continued. "We belong to different cultures, and I speak English while her first language is French. She's so much taller, slimmer and fairer than me with this beautiful mane of swinging auburn hair while I have none! The only thing we had in common was our sense of discipline and the fact that neither of us wants to stay in any one place for too long. So, as we both have our roots in classical dance, albeit Indian and classical ballet, I simply suggested we tell our own story. We had no preconceived plan."


Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan in Sacred Monsters
Photo: Tristram Kenton

But after they had spent two and a half hours together, Sylvie, Khan told me, had still not given anything away. It wasn't until the choreographer asked her whether there was any character in literature that she associated herself with that things began to happen.

"I couldn't believe my ears when she suddenly began talking about Sally Brown. Who was Sally Brown? She explained that she was Charlie Brown's sister and she would suddenly cry for no reason. It was the way she said it that was so revealing. I thought that this had to be the first line of our text; about showing our fragility and how we can never reach perfection."

"What makes us all special as human beings", Khan continued, " are our imperfections, and if you misread the technical language, you can eventually cover up who you really are. It's possible for us to create an illusion of perfection. So Sylvie's story is about Sally and about not being allowed to ask questions. It's about questioning without finding an answer."

Akram Khan's own story is about the journey he went on within himself to find Krishna. He's the Indian god with long curling hair who, people say, makes errors, but Khan explained that these are done intentionally. "As I decided to shave my hair off when I started losing it, unacceptable in the pure Kathak world, I was able to relate to him", the choreographer said.  The two stories of Sacred Monsters merge into one as the piece finally becomes a journey from Sylvie's world to Khan's.

Unfortunately, on the evening I went to see the French première in the Roman amphitheatre of Fourvières, Lyon, the skies opened five minutes before the start of the work, and the hour or so of performance time, plus considerably longer, was spent sheltering from the deluge of water in a small cave-cum tent behind the waterlogged stage. Miraculously, the French ballerina, more beautiful and elegant than ever in a grey belted mackintosh, had escaped getting drenched, and her amusement at the rest of us, dripping puddles on the ground was only equal to her disappointment at not having been able to dance.

"Akram is tremendous fun to work with; he makes me laugh and it is such an adventure to be with him", she said, "and although we come from different backgrounds, we face the same problems. We share a similar sense of curiosity which links us closely. It is in fact our differences, both physical as well as cultural, which make us so similar."

"This creation came along step by step after long conversations and I'm learning so much. We're very natural together, sharing childhood memories, and even though there's a set dialogue, we improvise around it depending on the mood we're in. Sometimes things are very light-hearted, other evenings it's heavy going, but not often as he's so wonderful to work with. More often than not it's playful, and once I even spoke to him in Italian and he didn't understand a word I said. But as time passes, the work, which we created last year, gets better and better. At least I think so".


Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan in Sacred Monsters
Photo: Mikki Kunttu

Trying to make himself heard above the rain beating down and the wind howling round, the softly spoken Khan, still in costume, voiced his own disappointment at the cancellation of the evening and commented that he had been looking forward to everyone meeting Sylvie on stage.

"She is so witty and charismatic; she's in a class of her own", he said. "And she' so …long", he added after a pause. "I knew when we met that my material wouldn't suit her, so I created a duet working on waves in our bodies where I could use her amazing arms to make it seem as though we were one person, with the energy travelling from one of us to the other without stopping. I've used her enthusiasm and her childlike quality."

It had been, he said, too much pressure for him to create all the choreography and his own Kathak solo was arranged by Gauri Sharma Tripathi, while that of Guillem was created by Lin Hwai-min, of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, the latter also being present in the rain-drenched cave.

Happily for all concerned, the piece is being presented at the Theatre des Champs Elysées next April, where it cannot be disturbed by the vagaries of the weather.

 Patricia Boccadoro is dance editor at Culturekiosque.com

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Akram Khan: Beyond Kathak

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