Explosive and animated, Sylvie Guillem moves with an inimitable combination of energy, joie de vivre and delicacy throughout her final performance at Beijing’s National Center for Performing Arts. 'Life in Progress' is the ballerina’s final tour. The internationally renowned Guillem will retire at the end of December this year, after a long and diverse dancing career that has taken her from the Paris Opera Ballet where she danced with Nureyev, to the Royal Ballet and then onto a successful freelance career, which led her to collaborate with Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant and Mats Ek. At 50, she is an astonishing dancer. Now is the last chance to see this marvel on stage.

Sylvie Guillem in <i>Bye</i> © Bill Cooper
Sylvie Guillem in Bye
© Bill Cooper
A lone dancer scuttles onto stage dragging an arm, resting momentarily where a bare tree stands centre stage. This is Technê by Akram Khan. Guillem moves like a whirring gizmo, compact and full of electricity, as though she could burst any moment. Her live wire limbs rarely come to rest for long. One quiet moment finds her face down, spreadeagled on the floor, her sinewy arms appearing dislocated from their sockets as her quick hands scrabble about on the floor, as if searching for something.

Intense sound builds around her – three musicians shrouded by darkness perform haunting yet urgent live music combining violin, voice and tabla drums. At times, the source of the sound becomes unclear – Guillem’s expressive movement seems to be both the origin and the result of the sound. This performance could be the defining example of a piece choreographed on a specific dancer – technê seems made for her and only her.

An opening like that is hard to follow. William Forsythe's Duo, performed by Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, was a light-hearted addition to the evening. Rather than building on the same energy, these two young men stripped it back to the basics: no sound but the rhythms created by the two bodies on stage; no special effects, just dancing, pure and simple. The entire piece revolved around their playful relationship: watching each other’s bodies, feeding off their partner’s skilled movement, but reluctant to lose their individual style and agency. Neither would yield to copying the other. Watts moved with incredible suppleness in his spine and hips, while Gjoka sent off sparks during bursts of energy and seemed to slacken like a puppet when he could not mimic Watts.

Third in the running order was Here & After, a duet between Guillem and Italian dancer Emanuela Montanari (from La Scala), choreographed by Russell Maliphant. The pair complement each other well, and, while Guillem's flair and vast technical ability was not to be equalled, the younger dancer complemented her with a steady energy. As with the opening piece, sound and visual design has a huge bearing on the dancing itself. Layers of sound washed over the two women as they danced through dense nets of shadow and pools of light. Once again, Guillem's body worked symbiotically with the music, and with such ease that I could hardly tell where in the space the sound ended and the woman began.

Sylvie Guillem in <i>Techne</i> © Bill Cooper
Sylvie Guillem in Techne
© Bill Cooper
Mats Ek's Bye, choreographed specifically for Guillem, is a poignant and very personal farewell to the dance world. As the curtain rose the bare stage yielded only the black and white image of an eye, then an expressive face, and gradually zoomed out to show Sylvie Guillem walk away from the audience. This curious little toy was used to create a sense that Guillem had climbed out of her black and white world to dance for us in colour. Tumbling out, wearing a bright yellow skirt, her hair tied in long reddish plait, Guillem romped around the stage with almost manic energy. Pausing only briefly to take off her shoes and socks, she leapt about cutting shapes in the air, enjoying the freedom provided by the movements. Her articulate bare feet exposed, Guillem performed with wonderful vigour and gravitas. As a black and white crowd gathered to watch her dance, she put her shoes back on and shuffled back in through the side of the screen. Alas, she was only on loan and had to return to whence she came. 

The Beijing audience on Saturday knew just how lucky they were to see 'Mademoiselle Non' in the flesh on her farewell tour. Sylvie Guillem is an utterly inimitable dancer and must be seen at any cost.