The term “sacred monsters” apparently first appeared in 19th-century France to describe big theater stars like Sarah Bernhardt, marking the birth of the contemporary celebrity cult. According to this line of thought, Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan’s Sacred Monsters is more than anything a meeting between two giants of the dance world.
Over a two-decade career, Guillem has been a principal with the Paris Opera Ballet and London Royal Ballet, forging a name as one of the leading ballerinas of her generation. Her combination of grace and athleticism has also made her a regular visitor to Japan, where she has fronted tours with the Tokyo Ballet.
Khan is a virtuoso of the entirely unrelated tradition of classical Indian kathak dance, but in the last decade has also emerged as one of Britain’s most innovative contemporary choreographers at the head of his eponymous company.
But, say Khan and Guillem in the Sacred Monsters program notes, there is a flipside to stardom.
“Having to live up to the expectations of your audience to be perfect, positive… There is no more room for failure, imperfection, to express one’s real feelings and emotions. The divine status becomes inhuman, monstrous.”
They go on to say that this is an experience also felt by many children, who have to live up to the expectations of the adults who define their world. And it is this experience that lies behind Sacred Monsters. In creating the piece, Guillem and Khan shared their backgrounds as child prodigies, and they say it was partly a common pressure to conform to strict classical traditions that brought them together.
But, continues Khan, there was something else that appealed to them as well.
“It is the dichotomy of the opposites. One place, which is the classical world, offers you tradition, history. It offers you discipline, something very sacred and spiritual, too,” he writes. “And the other place, the contemporary, offers you a science laboratory. It offers you your voice to be heard. It offers you numerous discoveries and possibilities. To be in a position where you can reach out to both, is the best place to be for me.”
Khan, through his own company, and Guillem, since mostly departing the classical ballet world in recent years, have both sought to find their own artistic voices through contemporary dance. Sacred Monsters is the product of this ambition.
Debuting in 2006, the piece opens on a silent stage, with the two dancers seeming to have regressed to childhood. Moving to hypnotic live music by Philip Sheppard, they re-enact their respective career paths, sometimes coming together for duets that pit kathak against ballet.
Widely acclaimed since its debut, the work also features set design by Japan’s Shizuka Hariu and costumes by designer Kei Ito—the icing on the cake for a domestic audience for whom Sacred Monsters is one of the highlights of this year’s dance season.
Contemporary dance performance by Sylvie Guillem & Akram Khan. Dec 18, 7pm; Dec 19 & 20, 3pm, ¥3,000-¥14,000. Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, Ueno. Tel: 03-5685-0650.