Sylvie Guillem stretches out

She raised her legs so high that they grazed her head, causing untold havoc to the equilibrium of classical alignment.

She raised her legs so high that they grazed her head, causing untold havoc to the equilibrium of classical alignment.

Even Sylvie Guillem’s not doing it anymore, so ballerinas everywhere can just put their legs down (a bit)—can’t they? That was one takeaway from Guillem’s concert at the Koch theater early this month, presented by the Joyce Theater Foundation.

Now 47, Guillem put her pointe shoes back on last year to dance Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon once more at La Scala. But her current program, entitled 6,000 Miles Away, is a sampling of the modern repertory she’s pursued in recent years. In New York, Guillem was charismatic and authoritative. And whether because of diminished athletic capacity—which I doubt—or simply due to artistic strategy, she was eschewing her notoriously overworked extensions.

Guillem switched to ballet from gymnastics at age 11, and it’s perhaps her background that propelled her, as the teenaged darling of then-Paris Opera Ballet artistic director Rudolf Nureyev, to define herself by a signature stunt. She raised her legs so high that they grazed her head, causing untold havoc to the equilibrium of classical alignment.

What should have been seen for what it was, one very young dancer’s assertion of individuality and rebellion against protocol, instead became something of a global gospel. Ballerinas around the world have ever since been similarly contorting themselves and the classical aesthetic in the process. At the Koch, however, Guillem’s own extensions remained smooth, high and beautiful, but no longer transgressive or stunt-like.

The program opened with Rearray, a Guillem commission from William Forsythe, for whom she is the perfect instrument/collaborator. His deconstruction and collagist reimagining of classical imagery resonates with her own kinetic instincts and provides an appropriate context for them. Here, she hooked up with La Scala’s odd and interesting Massimo Murru, with whom New York saw her dance Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand as guests with London’s Royal Ballet during its 2004 season at the Met.

In the Forsythe, they passed through and past positions that are usually explicitly punctuated in classical syntax. There were moments of wit as well as self-parody, in which Guillem’s physique suddenly turned hand-cranked. Guillem closed with Mats Ek’s Bye, another tailor-made piece in which she made common cause with a doorway filled with fiber-optic simulated companions. But Guillem herself was alone onstage, a kooky coquine who intermittently took off in spurts of aerial exuberance.

In between Guillem’s two numbers came a mildly amusing excerpt from Jirí Kylían’s 27’52”, in which Aurélie Cayla got half-naked and became a human hammock in the arms of Lukas Timulak.

I remember early in my dance writing career, former Ballet Russe star Irina Baronova, one of the “baby ballerinas” sponsored by Balanchine in 1931, telling me at age 62 how much more she could now bring to the roles she left behind after an early retirement—provided that she was still physically capable of doing them. Guillem, of course, is considerably younger and unquestionably capable of doing what she now does. More than two decades after I first saw her dance, I wished I’d seen her Manon. I’m curious to see what she’ll do next.

Read more by Joel Lobenthal at Lobenthal.com