Sacred Monsters

St James Theatre 2, Wellington

07/03/2008 - 08/03/2008

Production Details


A mouthwatering collaboration of styles will see two of the world’s star exponents of ballet and contemporary dance, Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan, unite to bring their radical new work Sacred Monsters to the NZ International Arts Festival stage for two performances only.

Parisian-born Guillem – the prima ballerina of the 21st-century – has teamed up with Akram Khan, a master of the traditional Indian kathak dance, to create this sensuous new cross-cultural work that has seen them become the toast of the dance world from London to America to Asia.

A French national treasure and the most famous ballerina in Europe, Guillem was catapulted onto the world stage when her mentor Ruldolph Nureyev announced her, at the age of 19, as the ‘youngest-ever Étoile’ with the Paris Opéra Ballet. If Nureyev changed forever the audience’s expectations about the male dancer, Guillem has had the same impact on ballerinas. 

When she left the Paris Opéra for The Royal Ballet, French newspaper Le Monde called Guillem’s defection "a national catastrophe". It was even debated in the French Parliament.  Celebrated as Principal Guest Artist for her professional brilliance and stunning six o’clock leg-lifts, Guillem and her dazzling performances continue to generate the same excitement reserved for royalty.  Retired from classical ballet, Guillem still amazes with immense strength and lyricism in her contemporary work.

Akram Khan is one of the most gifted choreographers and dancers of his generation. "There’s a phenomenon on the dance scene and his name is Akram Khan" screamed the Evening Standard in 1999, "startlingly original and beautiful" said the Observer.

Born in London in 1974, his mother introduced him as a child to drama and Bengali folk dancing to help with his hyperactivity. Studying at seven under the great kathak performer Sri Pratap Pawar, he later became Pawar’s disciple.

Challenging the boundaries of these two great dance forms, Sacred Monsters, sponsored by the Todd Corporation, showcases Guillem’s and Khan’s individual physicality and expression resulting in an honest performance examining intimate moments of their lives.

Coined from a nineteenth-century term, "monstres sacrés" was used to describe the high level of worship for the divas of the day; the forerunner of the modern celebrity cult – something both these performers have achieved.

Always the eternal explorer Guillem recently said, "Working with new people is what life is about for me – it is like confronting a new country, a new vision."


Khan also relishes new opportunities, "Working with Sylvie Guillem is an exciting new challenge, it gives me the opportunity to explore another classical dance language with one of its greatest exponents, and as a result, creating a situation that will unearth the things that are most often lost between the classical and modern world."


On the exploration of a different dance form in Sacred Monsters, Guillem displays her trademark candidness; "I am a classical dancer. I have been trained as a classical dancer, but I cannot say that my ‘religion’ is a style, a technique or a tradition. What I can say is that the ‘place’ where I perform, whatever style I perform, feels strongly a ‘sacred place.’ The stage … a monster … my sacred monster."


This New Zealand premiere is a major coup for the Festival   – sparks will fly at St James Theatre on 7 and 8 March 2008 at 8pm.    

Dancing from the heart’s interior

Review by Ann Hunt 14th Mar 2008

Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan are the antithesis of the artist as supreme egotist. They are simply supreme artists.

This exemplary production not only gives us seventy-five minutes of superb dance, it also offers music of a high order, which is worthy of a concert in its own right. The brilliant ensemble playing of Alies Sluiter, Coordt Linke, Laura Anstee and the extraordinary singing of Juliette Van Peteghem and Faheem Mazhar, contribute hugely to the evening’s enjoyment. Together with Guillem and Khan,  they make Sacred Monsters a highlight of this and any future New Zealand International Festival of the Arts.

Guillem has long been considered the foremost dancer of her generation. This is under-praising her. With her attenuated limbs and elegant height, she resembles some exotic bird, of a species we rarely if ever see. Unlike many dancers, she is capable of great speed and lyricism and her heroic extensions are only one aspect of a technique that makes her unforgettable.

Khan likewise is an outstanding choreographer and dancer. Fluid, with magnificent arms, he enthrals with the speed and strength, at times even ferocity, of his movements. Together, they are unparalleled – a perfect balance of masculine/feminine.

The focus of these two dancers is absolute. Yet it is given with an insouciant, throwaway air, with spoken asides to the audience and each other. The mechanics of the performance are visible for all to see: Guillem brushing and plaiting her auburn hair; Khan removing his anklet chains; the two towelling the stage dry of perspiration – and we are enchanted.

Khan’s inventive, exhilarating choreography, with two solos contributed by Lin Hwai-Min and Gauri Sharma Tripathi, is a marvellous mix of classical ballet technique and Kathak dance.

These artists dance from the heart’s interior, embellishing technique with an inner joy and exuberance that leaves the audience uplifted and invigorated.  It helps us to know such beauty exists.


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A formidable team

Review by Deirdre Tarrant 12th Mar 2008

Sylvie Guillem is arguably the best dancer in today’s world of classical ballet. The Fonteyn of our time with a dazzling international career and a body that is every inch the ballerina, from the beautifully expressive hands to the most amazingly articulate feet arching from under long dark voluminous trousers.

Akram Khan is a choreographer and dancer with a much acclaimed and diverse career working with an amazing line-up of the theatrically rich and famous. She grew up in France and he is of Bangladeshi origins but grew up in London. Together they are a formidable team, but they manage to come across the footlights with an uncanny immediacy as they set out to share their love of dance with us, the audience.

The title asks us to take the term Monstres Sacres as a starting point for this meeting of two stars who have made themselves icons in their own classical art forms of kathak and ballet and to take a journey with them both as they share memories, responses and most importantly, movement.

There is text which is light and skims surfaces not indulged in, there is wonderful music composed by Philip Sheppard  with song by Juliette van Peteghem and Faheem Mazzhar crossing boundaries both muslim and celtic, and providing a real global sound palette. Torn papier machier in the austere set design by Shizuka Hariu provides visual tension and duality and the dancers stand shadowed together as the evening begins. 

Guillem starts shackled by chains that fall away. The ankle bells of traditional kathak precision and spirituality pull Khan out into the space and the disciplines of their training and a lifetime of learning their respective techniques is acknowledged. There is a logic to the progression of this journey and every movement, word and gesture appears completely in control – both dancers have stunning solos as they explore ‘freedom’ but this never choreographically takes them to a place of total release either physically or emotionally.

The Indian god, Krishna, inspires a duet in which Khan totally supports an entwined Guillem. She leans far out and their arms invoke images of mythical and religious deities with moments of sublime suspension and beauty. The core stability of Khan’s earthed legs and torso provides the antithesis for her aerial and ethereal floating above reality. Images of a sacred monster?

There is a little humour and discourse that allows us, for a moment, to share something of them as real people, to hear of their fears and foibles but my sense was that this was tightly scripted and in mock dissension. The guard of the star does not really go down? The finale transports, clear crisp, simple movement, plosive patterns, together and apart but a dancing dialogue as their two spirits soar in unison with the joy, the emerveille, the wonder of dancing.

The audience responds, the connections are made and the theatre comes to its feet in a standing ovation for what was certainly the most anticipated and is now the most memorable Festival event so far.  


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A heavenly hybrid of French and Indian

Review by Jennifer Shennan 08th Mar 2008

France, the leading European force in ballet history; India, the leading force in Asian dance. Place a star from each tradition together on stage and what do you have? A firmament for a festival.

This was a curious combination of French panache versus Muslim/Hindu philosophising, a cleverly crafted mix of apparent improvisation with casual clowning, and immaculately delivered rhythm alternating with geometric wizardry. [More]


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Questioning the monster of perfection and fame

Review by Lyne Pringle 08th Mar 2008

Something about this work perplexes me and I’m trying to put my finger on it. I felt the same after seeing it in Singapore last year and I was curious to see how it held up dramaturgically, how much of it was spontaneous and whether the script endured.

There is no doubt that Akram Khan is a master weaver, helped greatly by dramaturge Guy Cools; in the just over an hour of dance song, text and music – brilliant score by Phillip Sheppard – there is a reassuring sense that all elements are placed in just the right relationship to each other, allowing the audience to settle into their seats. Bits I thought were improvised are in fact tightly choreographed and scripted, the text remains somewhat limp in places and dramaturgically it does loop back throughout to the Sacred Monsters theme in an intriguing way.

Chains rattling and bells tingling float to the ears alongside the ethereal voice of Juliette Van Petegham as the work begins under what looks like the edge of an iceberg riven in two.  As the strains of violin and cello playing notes that resemble the sound of a sitar and a song that seems to be Celtic, we are in the global village. 

Sylvie Guillem has the chains around her wrists and following a short monologue from Khan; a dancer speaking in liquid natural delivery. "Why obedience? This is not an option – she must search for her own answers" the chains drop from her wrists and she ‘dances’- this word too small to begin to describe how she moves – a solo choreographed by Lin Hwai-Min (founder of Cloud Gate Dance Company) leading to the first part of my perplexity.

How can a human body be this perfectly matched to the classical ballet form? What is the muscular configuration that allows for a leg to developé by the ear with such apparent ease? Why does the arch of her foot provide so much aesthetic satisfaction that is worth the price of admission alone? How does it transpire that the, arguably, most proficient ballerina on the planet of this generation (think Pavlova, Fonteyn and the impact they had when they visited these shores to become part of our dance mythology – my grandmother talked of this) comes to our stage, performing choreography by a Taiwanese man in a concert with a man, equally famous born in Bangladesh brought up Muslim, who is an expert in Kathak dance, a northern India classical dance form, to present a contemporary blended performance?

Perplexing yet again: signs of the times? The global village.

But this is what is so exciting about Khan’s work, drawing the planet together with his very smart collaborations, fierce publicity machine, understanding of what audiences appreciate, how to develop those audiences and a commitment to accessibility in any cultural context. He is working with the National Ballet of China next on an intercultural project.

Khan then performs a torrid Kathak solo, working through his feelings of inadequacy in playing Krishna – bald and not blue – to deliver the trademark adoration of rhythmic structures and flashing arm patterns of this style, choreographed by Gauri Sharma Tripathi. He dances beautifully.

Following these two showcase solos the work gets into the meat of the collaboration between these dancers trained in very different styles. Duets all choreographed by Khan are interspersed with revelations about their fears and anxieties. They move arms linked with fluid synchronicity, fight, cajole, try to waltz in staccato rhythms and eventually finish in a breathtaking duet with Guillem supported, legs wrapped around Khan’s waist, as their arms entwine to evoke Shiva and Shakti. The final duet after Guillem has tried to find a word that expresses the feeling a child gets when she looks at a Christmas tree is a joyous little affair that finishes the evening, delighting the audience to its feet.

There got it! The real source of my perplexity – it is pitched perfectly at the crowds; they love it. Yes I am grateful to see Guillem and Khan so up close and personal on a New Zealand stage but ultimately the performance is too lightweight for me, not choreographically interesting in a sustained way and perhaps it trades too heavily on the fame of the stars: and yet the theme is ‘Sacred Monsters’ which seeks to dismantle and question the monster of perfection and fame.

Have I got myself caught in a tautological cul de sac? See what I mean – perplexed.


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