Criticism Now

The Morning After - PUSH

A breathtaking, multi-award-winning collaboration between two of contemporary dance’s brightest stars – Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant.

At last, Melbourne Festival is proud to present the Melbourne premiere of PUSH, a production of four dance works by acclaimed UK choreographer, Russell Maliphant. Across three solos and one duet, the legendary Sylvie Guillem joins forces with Maliphant to create a divine, overwhelming paean to the beauty of the human body in motion.

Three short solo works open the evening. Solo, a piece written specifically for Guillem, sees her balletic movements counterpointed by a flamenco guitar soundtrack. Shift has Maliphant take the stage for a duet with an absent partner – a ghostly dance with shadows. For Two, Guillem becomes almost sculptural, her deliberate, exquisitely controlled movements thrown into relief by masterful lighting. Finally, Guillem and Maliphant are united for the majesty of PUSH, a magical, half-hour dance duet of coiled, contained strength.

Working with his long-time collaborator, lighting designer Michael Hulls, Maliphant achieves a mesmerising interplay between music, movement and light. Charged with an exceptional intensity and danced with startling technical prowess, PUSH sees Maliphant and Guillem at their riveting best.

For more information about this show, visit the Melbourne Festival website.

The Morning After: PUSH. Our post-mortem discussion panel featured a wide range of perspectives from writers Shane Maloney and Malcolm Knox, critic Jordan Beth Vincent and host Simon Abrahams. If you don’t like contemporary dance, your view has representation on this panel.

A short performance video from the Birmingham Hippodrome.

Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant - PUSH


‘Modern Dance is Sometimes Deathly Dull’: On PUSH

By Melissa Lucashenko

Her Majesty’s Theatre. A cold Melbourne night. Deeply sceptical of (not to say hostile to) modern dance, I hoik up three flights of stairs past plush green sofas and enormous oil portraits, into the dizzying heights of the Gods. Is that what these seats perched far above the stage are called? Regardless, the venue is packed, and I am elbowing strangers when I sit down. Hundreds of people have paid large sums to see Sylvie Guillem and her partner Russel Maliphant dance here tonight. I wonder what these punters know that I don’t. Modern dance is deathly dull, and I have been sentenced to eighty minutes of it when I could be home watching Gruen.

Then red-haired Guillem appears on stage in a wispy white outfit. She flicks her body about with nonchalant ease, using the entire space to strut to a flamenco-like soundscape. Soon the stark white lighting is replaced by blue, changing the colour of her costume, and the music alters as well, to a harsher, more modern beat. At forty-seven, she has amazing flexibility, legs that can go anywhere she wants them to, including completely vertical, perpendicular to the stage, but there is no apparent story to her movement. I am impressed without being engrossed.

In the second segment, Shift, Maliphant, also in white, moves slowly and strongly to the heartfelt moan of a viola. Four white screens at the rear of the stage lend a faintly Japanese sense to the performance; later I read in the notes that the piece is yoga-influenced. This is more like it. In his slow early twirling I think of gum leaves turning in a breeze. And the lighting is amazing – Maliphant is cast in shadow but the shadows aren’t identical. It’s as though he has invited alternative selves up on stage there with him, and is performing with two shadow brothers. This dance is starker and slower and more muscular than the previous one, and I like it much more.

Guillem comes on again for the third piece, called Two. She is contained this time within a box of light and shadow. It begins very angular, almost robotic, but soon transforms into an astonishing fluidity. When her right arm, held high and back, comes across her body and down almost to ankle height, fast and liquid, the dancer seems to have been turned into rope. It is the one truly breathtaking moment of the show; this, I think to myself, this must be what people have come to see. Then the box she is held within mutates. The dancer’s torso and inner limbs are bathed in deep shadow but her lower arms and legs now catch the light. As she moves and twists, it’s as though she is holding glow sticks, or is wielding four light sabres, one on every extremity. Along with a frenetic score, this raises the energy in the theatre. It is entrancing, magical, mesmerising: her hands and feet are flashing knives of light. I begin to sense why the theatre is close to full. Modern dance isn’t deathly dull at all.

The fourth and final segment, Push, is according to the program notes ‘a glamorous duet’. For much of the performance Guillem is held aloft on Maliphant’s shoulders, or kneels upon his angled back, or is bending and rolling across him. Amateur that I am, I can’t help worrying. Will he drop her? Or, less catastrophic, simply stagger inelegantly under her (admittedly slight) weight. Neither happens. But the connection between the two dancers – who were able to captivate in the individual segments – seems forced and rather mechanical. And the timing is less than perfect. My expectations had been raised by the magical box of light, and this mundane collaboration dashes them. After the first few minutes I grow bored with the lack of chemistry. Modern dance is sometimes deathly dull. When the piece ends, though, the crowd goes beserk. There are whistles, cat calls, then a standing ovation. Flowers are brought, the dancers bow their thanks, and still the crowd cheers. I leave, my scepticism chipped but still well intact, not really understanding the depth of the audience’s ecstatic response. I’m a writer, wedded to the need for narrative and conflict and dramatic conclusions. Perhaps this very happy dance-literate audience got all that from tonight. Or maybe they’re looking for other things altogether. Good luck to them, I say, racing home just in time to catch Ja’mie, Private School Girl on the ABC.

‘An Almost Religious Awe’: In the Audience of PUSH

By Chloe Hooper

I spent the first act of PUSH in ‘lock-out’, staring at an old television that reduced the legendary Ms Guillem to a flickering spider-like presence. Latecomers, once suitably chastened, were escorted to a theatre door by an usher who diligently kept us behind heavy red velvet curtains while we listened to every note of the dance’s score, then rapturous applause. Finally we were allowed inside. We fumbled into darkness and there on the stage was the prima ballerina, now taking her bow.

My mother and I had disagreed on the fastest way to get to the theatre, and as I sank into my seat I wondered what percentage of audience members start any performance aggrieved? Suddenly the whole theatre seemed to seethe with the weight of people’s resentment at the pressures of making it to cultural events, and then having to sit in confinement with their nearest and dearest.

And who wants to give up their grudge even in the face of beauty? Soon the lights dimmed and there was Sylvie Guillem’s choreographer and co-dancer, Russell Maliphant, in sailor’s whites, dancing as his projected shadow stretched, sashayed and twirled as if it had taken on a life of its own. Was this Jungian? A study of a man whose pettiness had grown to outsize proportions? Why, after I had got off the train at Flinders Street Station, knowing we’d be late, had I followed my mother back on the train again? Who can’t calculate it’s faster to take a taxi up Exhibition Street than follow the loop all the way to Parliament Station? ‘The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself,’ Jung proclaimed, believing it to be ‘a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well.’ Accepting our shadow is key to self-acceptance, et cetera, et cetera: a feat made harder for Maliphant now he had three lithe, powerful reflections with which to contend. In a beautiful conclusion, he leaned back, arms outstretched, into his own shadow’s dark embrace.

Guillem soon returned to perform the extraordinary Two, contorting into a series of surreal, organic shapes. Her arms looked longer than regular arms. Her limbs seemed to have more joints. Here was the snake charmer and the snake, the diver and deep-sea life. With all the glamour of high fashion and the kudos of high dance, she shadowboxed from within a tight square of light.

The two dancers appeared together in Push, a work which showcased their athleticism and the phenomenal malleability of the human form. The two bodies created a kind of moving sculpture. It was cool and controlled, but so stylised that this series of ingenious poses lacked any heat. Not that the audience seemed to mind. The dance aficionados gave off an almost religious awe. Guillem’s merest gesture — her bow, the acceptance of a bouquet — drove them ecstatic. And my mother and I left the buzzing foyer, reconciled in some wordless way, and went to have a drink.

‘Something Recognisable About Genius’: PUSH

By Malcolm Knox

A declaration of innocence, or ignorance: the name Sylvie Guillem meant little to me, beyond being able to guess that she was a dancer. In the lobby of Her Majesty’s Theatre, packed with long supple spines and heads held up as if on strings, I can also declare I am the human with the worst posture. Contemporary dance tends to be for the initiates, and Guillem’s first show in Melbourne is crowded with dancer bodies whose poise is shaken only by the palpable excitement brought on by the imminent appearance of herself.

To really know what’s going on in contemporary dance at this level, it must help to be a dancer yourself. There is a background language off which abstract art always plays, and if rules are to be broken it’s helpful to know what those rules are. Hence the dancer bodies. In the world of sport (with which I’m more familiar) this most reminds me of surfing, which is also judged subjectively, also about aesthetics as much as technical achievement, also an unresolved hybrid of athleticism and art. Go to a surf contest and there’s the same concentration of a sub-species — in their case thick nuggety bodies, short legs, strong shoulders — who know what they’re seeing because they do it themselves.

But I do believe there is something transcendent and recognisable about genius, and I feel this when Guillem materialises out of the backlights for Solo, the first of three single-dancer pieces. It’s as universal as the feeling inspired by, say, Kelly Slater surfing perfect waves: you just know mastery when you see it. In Guillem’s case, it is the lightness of her touch on the floor as she performs the flamenco-infused Solo. If that floor were made of plasticine you would barely see an imprint.

Illuminated from behind and above by seven circles of light, Guillem presents a dreamy silhouette, a meditative solitariness offsetting the gusto of the music. I am hit by a strong emotion, first of all from the beauty of the female form, and then by a memory of the night I met my wife, who, like Guillem on stage, had short red hair and a flowing white top. As personal as this might be, it is the kind of jolt that abstract art is meant to give us, collapsing time and space and setting something free that was locked up inside.

My nostalgia at the short eight minutes of Solo is lifted during Russell Maliphant’s Shift. Here, the lighting designed by Michael Hulls becomes even more of an active player, as Maliphant is lit from the front by six spotlights projecting his shadow onto six panels. The figures his shadow makes are simple and slow, to an eastern-inspired string score, with the intention of creating an accompanying many-Maliphanted background. I hear gasps of delight around me as the audience reacts to a new projection, as if at a magic show. At least Maliphant doesn’t have to worry about his backing dancers being out of time, and when he is finished, he thanks ‘them’ as well.

Guillem’s second solo, Two, places her in a complex square of down-lighting that resembles a patch of plaid, or tartan. A black sheath eliminates all of her body except her head, shoulders, arms, back and feet; she has no middle. What this does, as she begins a steady, rising, deliberative series of phrases, is to recreate her body as a new, insectile shape, her arms turning into reticulated bug-limbs. This accentuates her musculature more than Solo, which emphasised lightness and flow. But as Two progresses and speeds up to a pulsing electronic score, Guillem begins to flash and whirr and blur, her hands like the tips of a helicopter’s rotor, the core of her body remaining a dark absence.

It is a dazzling first set. The involvement of Hulls’s lighting means that for me, a non-speaker of the dance language, the performances are more accessible. We all know the body, most of us like illusion, and I can’t imagine that if you are open to the possibility of wonderment that you would not recognise the best when you see it. And that is a privilege.

The high that the three solos left me on ebbs a little at the beginning of the second part of the collaboration, the 30-minute rendition of Push, the duet that Guillem and Maliphant have created for themselves and performed since 2005. The lighting, a soft golden glow, is more subtle, bringing attention back to the two dancers. Maliphant and Guillem circle and stalk each other, like martial artists on their mat, coming together in a series of engagements, twists and lifts. Their physical prowess is, again, akin to illusionism: there are times when I cannot see enough points of contact between the dancers’ bodies to sustain the flights against gravity that they are achieving, and imagine that I can see the wires holding them up. But wireless they are, making flights of fancy.

For a time I flail about for a narrative. After the virtuosity of their solos, the two dancers seem to be reaching for each other, a little tentative, needing to force it at times, their muscles trembling; I think of a couple trying to re-establish domesticity after a time apart.

It is during the later stages that I stop trying to discover, or impose, a story on what is essentially an abstract construction. Instead, I am left with an insight about strength: the strength of the male in lifting the female needs to be completed by the strength of the female in being lifted. There seems, in the corner of my eye, something significant being said about types of strength and the equality, within difference, of the sexes.

Contemporary Dance is Not For Everyone

By Shane Maloney

Contemporary dance is not for everyone. And I’m one of the people it’s not for.

No disrespect to dancers, choreographers, balletomanes and other biased parties, and I do not question that a great deal of skill, athleticism and artistry is required, but I just don’t get it. Apart from the ABC Interpretive Dance Bandicoot, I am unacquainted with the current roster of the form’s most accomplished practitioners.

Notwithstanding these facts, I allowed myself to be persuaded by the Wheeler Centre to cast my eye over a performance of Push, ‘a brilliant, multi-award winning collaboration between two of contemporary dance’s brightest stars – Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant’ and to share my thoughts about the experience. Naturally, I demurred. But when they threatened to send somebody around to give me a dose of the old pas-de-deux, I folded faster than the North Melbourne forward line.

And so there I was at Her Majesty’s theatre, elbowing my way though a crowd of elbows, most of which were attached to the thin, sinewy bodies of people with a taste for sprung floors. The whole foyer was buzzing with excitement. You know she’s forty-eight, I could hear them whispering to each other. Even I know that this is pretty long in the tooth for a hoofer, but Ms Guillem’s advanced age could not in itself account for the palpable eagerness in the air. Fortunately, several of those in attendance were able to educate me on the subject. Guillem isn’t just a star, I was told. She’s a supernova, the biggest thing in the dance galaxy, and a story in herself. Initially a gymnast, she was talent spotted while doing some extra training at the Paris Opera Ballet. At 19, she was promoted to the top rank by Rudolf Nureyev himself. (Rudi once co-directed a production of Don Quixote in F hangar at Essendon airport, but that’s another story). Eventually, she chucked in classical ballet to pursue a freelance career in contemporary and classical roles. So awesome is her technique that the entire dance world lies at her feet – which, by the way, are quite large and absolutely sure.

Armed with this information and packet of Maltesers, I opened my mind and awaited conversion. The show opens with a solo called Solo. It is set to flamenco music. Guillem appears in a wafty white outfit and makes some dramatic moves. Her strength and liquidity control are on display but she seems untouched by the increasing tempo and foot-stomping of the beat. Flamenco is febrile. This felt bloodless. On the upside, it was only eight minutes long and the time went relatively quickly.

Next come Russell Maliphant with a solo called Shift. No spring chicken himself by dance standards, he looks like a very fit, very calm, very self-possessed yoga teacher. The music is slow and lugubrious and Maliphant’s movements are restrained and somewhat hypnotic. The dance is a kind of meditation, slow and inward-directed at first, then gradually building up to kicks and spins. Along the way, his shadow appears on the white backdrop behind him, mirroring his movements. First there is one shadow, with which he engages for a while, then two. He is dancing with himself. Which is just as well, because somewhere around the ten-minute mark he’s lost me. It’s interesting in its way, but it’s not that interesting.

Guillem’s second solo follows. It is called Two. She appears before us in a square of light. Pings like sonar begin and faint noises like whale song. She bends forward, folding herself into a sculptural shape that makes her appear to be a single muscle, latent with strength and energy. Her arms begin to describe a series of slow, mesmerising movements. As they ripple through the air, something truly weird begins to happen. She becomes a shape-shifter. Almost imperceptibly, as if we are watching them though a dense, translucent gas, her arms get longer. Observed intently enough, they seem to leave a faint, immediately-vanishing blur behind them . I’ve heard of artists stretching themselves but this is downright freaky. It’s a trick, of course. The lighting guy, Michael Hulls, is an integral part of the whole shebang. He anoints the dancers with light and shadow, rendering their physicality even more extraordinary.

For the denouement comes the big duet, Push. The pair emerge from blackness, Guillem perched on Maliphant’s shoulders. The bodies twine around each other in continuous flux, rolling and folding, lifting and arching, balance and counter-balance, equal in strength and control. They run weightless rings around each other and blatantly defy the laws of gravity but their interaction is cool and dispassionate. If Bang & Olafsen was a dance act, this would be it.

Was I converted? No. Was I entertained? As much as possible, I concede, for a man who thinks a jeté is a place you go fishing.


The choreography exudes energy, but at the same time communicates a great calmness, a synergistic harmony between two bodies who have found a perfect balance

Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant’s ‘Push’ for @MelbFestival was stunning. Completely stunning.

Sylvie Guillem & Russell Maliphant’s performances in “Push” were beautiful.

Incredible experience watching Sylvie Guillem dance tonight @MelbFestival

There are few dancers with the control and articulation necessary to capture the kind of fluid precision in Maliphant’s choreography. Maliphant is one, but all eyes are drawn to Guillem. As a technician, she is still flawless; as a performer, she is mesmerising.

To see Maliphant and Guillem dancing together is to see before one every ballet dancer’s dream — it is rare to see two performers who are not only outstanding interpreters in their own right, but have such a clear affinity with each other.

Two bodies push and pull in equality, join, separate, mould and define in intimate connection, hypnotic and serene, the whole, like Guillem herself, flawless and beautiful, devoid of artifice, full of art.

With Push, it’s almost utterly impossible, in words, to begin to reflect the intensity, purity & transcendence of the performance, which had many rising to spontaneous, inevitable, irresistible ovation. Including this cynical critic.

Wow, Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant in Push. Absolutely sensational!…

Seeing Sylvie for 2nd time this year was a real treat, and the interplay of lighting and choreo in the middle two pieces stunning. #melbfest

Guillem & Maliphant mastered simplicity of expression. Testament: that such subtlety can incite a standing ovation. #push @MelbFestival

Nearly 6 foot tall & the best dancer the world has ever seen Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant - PUSH: via @YouTube

Sylvie Guillem moves like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Truly breathtaking! #melbfest

Second time I’ve seen Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant in Push. Still stunning. Second show tomorrow night if you’re in Melbourne

The sheer beauty of form, line and movement was breathtaking.

But my god, Sylvie Guillem’s dancing is exquisite; such focus, fluidity, flexibility and precision. Breathtaking. #melbfest

The two dancers come from considerably different spheres - both were trained in classical ballet, however - but work together dynamically, and complement one another terrifically.

Whilst the individual pieces have their flaws, it’s the whole evening that really matters and somehow Maliphant has achieved the near impossible, making the different parts form what feels like a cohesive whole.

Dancers are supposed to be in their prime in the 20s, but Guillem and Maliphant, together straddling the great 50 divide, defy that old wive’s tale. The nuance and the consideration they bring to even the most familiar of steps only get better with age.

The choreography, as Guillem twines herself up, over and around Maliphant’s poised and waiting body, is complex and seamless, a dense patterning of balance and counter balance, of rise and fall, of air and earth.

It’s abstract dance but there’s something very real in the choreography, hinting at the myriad of actions and emotions any couple, or friendship, might go through, whether they be support, escape, encouragement, protection or concord.

Blown away by Sylvie Guillem & Russell Maliphant. In particular the two Guillem solos. A masterful performance #melbfest

There was this 1 moment in Push when both Guillem and Maliphant looked @ the audience,as if inviting us in2 their world but at our own risk.

I overheard someone say how disappointing it was that there was nothing new in this show, but choreography as intimate and inspirational as this, lit with such stunning finesse, and performed by great dancers, will always remain fresh and powerfully invigorating.

Throughout the eye is drawn to Guillem but again the partnering skills of Maliphant are absolutely at the heart of this focussed, refined and deeply satisfying dance.

Everything is muted, coiled, sensuous yet asexual. Sometimes a personal relationship is implied. But mostly this is abstraction, pure and intense. After a while the rolls and lifts begin to repeat themselves. Yet the final image of Ms. Guillem, again lifted, pointing upward, then slipping halfway down to a fade-out, is as striking as the beginning.

Sylvie Guillem, beautiful and brilliant. @MelbFestival

Nobody coughed, nobody sneezed, nobody breathed, everybody was there.

Amazingly privileged to have just watched Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant dance #Push together. Simply stunning. @brumhippodrome @IDFB

They’ve worked together before, but in Push, a duet given its world première last Friday, we saw them actually dance together for the first time.

To describe Guillem’s performance as beautiful, or perfect, rather misses the point. She’s a wraith-like manifestation of something transcendent. Even that idea falls laughably short of the mark. Guillem’s dancing in the solos, her presence in the solos, was like the imaginings of perfection itself. Like perfection thinking out loud.

It only takes a few seconds to understand why Sylvie Guillem’s name inspires such passionate awe among dance fans. She is the kind of performer who gives you goosebumps from the moment she first appears on stage. You simply can’t take your eyes off her.

Indeed, the lighting was an essential component to the impact of all four works. Throughout the evening, Maliphant shows just how important it is and how it can be used to great effect. While he is not the only contemporary choreographer to acknowledge and understand this, there are still far too many who seem to see it as something to be thought about after the movement has been made. As with all good dance, “PUSH” is truly a fusion of all the theatre arts.

@MelbFestival Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant were sublime in Push. Pity I had to sit on my coat to see her feet at her majesty’s!

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