Sylvie Guillem’s goodbye is a long one. The farewell tour of this astonishing dancer takes in much of the world and lasts the whole year. Those of us who have just seen her week of farewell shows at London’s Sadler’s Wells know what the world of dance will miss. This 49 year-old phenomenon was mesmerising, stretching her body into impossible shapes, and even in her farewell tour eschewing the usual “best of” retrospective to premiere new and experimental work.
But while all the critics remained in awe of her technical ability, I was struck by one word that nearly all of them applied to her — “charisma.” Indeed, one national paper concluded that she was “the most charismatic performer on earth.”
It did make me think how charisma stands almost alongside technical prowess in great performances in leaving an audience both breathless and enthralled for reasons it can’t quite define. The greatest performers have all had that indefinable quality. It is sometimes known by other names. With Laurence Olivier, it was called stage presence. But perhaps charisma sums it up best. And it is charisma as much as technique that audiences often pay to see.
Packed houses went to see Daniel Barenboim play Schubert at his new piano over the last week. Yet piano experts will tell you that Barenboim isn’t necessarily the greatest pianist in the world. But he is certainly one of the most charismatic. He will also be one of the hottest tickets at the Proms this summer, along with Sir Simon Rattle, another maestro who effortlessly exudes charisma, and draws crowds who are not all experts on the finer points of conducting.
There are examples in every art form. And I find it pleasing that, for all the millions of words and column inches spent on critical appreciation, a vital ingredient of what audiences go to see simply doesn’t lend itself to analysis. None of us can really know how Mark Rylance manages to dominate the stage in the play Jerusalem or the TV screen in Wolf Hall, even when others are speaking and are the main focus of the camera or director. It is only partly technique. The other part is that indefinable quality, the magic that Sylvie Guillem adds to her technique to mesmerise audiences.
I suspect that the artists themselves are unaware of how they exude charisma. But it can turn a performance from a technical triumph into the creation of a magical experience. So I’m pleased that critics struggle to find words for it, that audiences are unable to analyse it, and that the artists themselves would stare at you blankly if you mentioned it to them. The experience of a truly great performance shouldn’t be capable of being summed up in mere words.
Bryan Ferry’s last-minute cancellation had a happy ending
Bryan Ferry came near to breaking the record for last-minute cancellations last Monday. His concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall was called off because of illness just 10 minutes before the official start time, with hundreds already in the Hall, many dining, and some no doubt with hotel and travel bills. The announcement over the tannoy — “Regretfully, the concert is cancelled because of illness” was, shall we say, a bit brusque and matter of fact. Some people indeed thought it was a joke. But illness is illness, and as it happens, for me at least, the night then took a rather wonderful turn. Ferry’s support act, the excellent Welsh singer-songwriter Judith Owen, came into one of the Hall’s restaurants and invited some friends, critics and others back to her west London home for a private show, with her seated at the piano in her front room. As well as her tour musicians, accompanying her on double bass for this soiree was her husband, Harry Shearer, also known as a star of the film This Is Spinal Tap and the voice of several characters in The Simpsons. It was quite an evening. Stars should play gigs in their own front rooms more often.
A step too far for the Edinburgh Festival
A report on the future of the Edinburgh Festival, commissioned by the city’s Festivals Forum, makes a number of recommendations including raising an extra £10m a year from alternative funding models, doing more to meet challenges from the digital revolution, refurbishing cultural venues, a new accommodation strategy, and transport and ticketing initiatives. The report, called Thundering Hooves 2.0 (catchy huh?) says “large-scale, radical solutions are now needed...” The recommendations listed above might be radical, yet with luck they are achievable, but the report then goes on to recommend building Edinburgh’s relationship with Glasgow. There’s the radical, and there’s the downright impossible.