Review: Life in Progress

Barbara Newman views both great and good dancers on the ballet stage.

By the time Sylvie Guillem concludes her nine-month farewell tour in December, she will have visited 16 countries and packed 22 enormous theatres to bursting. An étoile of the Paris Opéra Ballet at the age of 19, at 50 she is the only ballerina on earth whose artistry commands such widespread respect and acclaim.

This final programme, Life in Progress, celebrates her inquisitive nature, proudly displaying it in a range of bespoke contemporary choreography. But she has marked ballet even more strongly, establishing a template for physical daring, precise execution and restrained emotion that will continue to shape performers and the public’s taste until another unique artist comes along with equally distinctive skill and personality.

Ms. Guillem’s voluntary retirement leaves a noticeable gap in ballet, which needs all the talent it can discover to compete with flashier attractions. Though every country generates its own stars, the local public’s favorites, few dancers anywhere can enhance every step in every piece with the absolute authority born of rigorous training and the charisma that transforms discipline into expression. We were lucky to have such an artist here for 19 years, and we’ll wait a long time to see another like her.

The Queensland ballet performing La Sylphide.

The Queensland Ballet performing La Sylphide.

For its London debut, the Queensland Ballet chose Peter Schaufuss’ production of La Sylphide, a delicate Romantic masterpiece that lies at the heart of the Danish repertory while only occasionally appearing elsewhere. Despite its simple narrative, which is easily told, the ballet demands a stylistic unity that creates a considerable challenge. Led confidently by principals trained in Australia, Denmark, Cuba and China and  supported by a full orchestra, the company presented Bournonville’s light, fleet technique with meticulous care. Its natural flow eluded them, however, as did the story’s dramatic depth, so we saw—or sometimes saw, on an underlit stage— the work’s pleasing shape but little of its forceful spirit.

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A ballet that can engage the audience while guiding performers beyond their secure limits is always worth doing, but for the artists you never forget, good enough is never good enough.

Queensland Ballet in La Sylphide, London Coliseum, 4-8 August.

Sylvie Guillem’s Life in Progress, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 8-10 August; Birmingham Hippodrome, 8-9 September. Details on

St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre in Swan Lake and La Bayadère, London Coliseum, 13-23 August,