Posted on July 20, 2016
In case you hadn’t noticed, branding works just as effectively in dance as in the supermarket. The Sadler’s Wells production titled simply Natalia Osipova is on its way to the Edinburgh International Festival in August, back to the Wells in September, and into the gaping cavern of the New York City Center in November. It involves only four dancers – the ballerina; her public and private partner, Sergei Polunin; Jason Kittelberger and James O’Hara – who perform in simple costumes on a largely bare stage. Sadler’s Wells has commissioned three new pieces for them by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Russell Maliphant, and Arthur Pita. But the principal draw is Osipova.
As Marie Rambert used to say, a blind man could see her extraordinary talent. Light and strong, with a jump that convinces you she has rubber balls strapped to the soles of her feet, she’s one of those artists who draws your eye the minute she steps on stage. Since leaving the Bolshoi and joining The Royal Ballet in 2013, she has sprinted through the standard repertory with panache, creating new roles for Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor and Alastair Marriott along the way, none of whom did her any favours.
Maybe she thought she’d have better luck with contemporary dancemakers than with those wedded to ballet. The Sadler’s Wells programme quoted her as saying “To mix classical and contemporary. That is my wish,” and then, “Physically it is quite difficult. Also you have to understand why you do it… I think the difference with me is that I put my soul into it. This is what I do, this is me.”
For her sake, I hope she now feels that she’s gained something from the experience, because the London audience discovered nothing about her – except maybe her curiosity – that they didn’t already know.
In Qutb, which means axis in Arabic, Cherkaoui slipped her between Kittelberger and O’Hara, who gently guided her tensile fluidity through space. Her arms stretched and undulated, and her weight seemed to evaporate as the trio fused into one limpid hydra with intertwined limbs. Moving comfortably without the burden of defined emotion or shoes, Osipova looked slightly unfocussed, as if trying to remember her steps, or under-rehearsed, or else the piece wasn’t quite finished.
Silent Echo, Maliphant’s pas de deux for the star couple, sets them adrift in the shadows of flaring, then fading washes of light. Like uncertain lovers or stalkers, they inch toward and away from one another, with turns at various speeds, an occasional huge développé from her and a soft explosive leap from him puncturing the aimless atmosphere. The choreographer claimed “Its inspiration is really the classical pas de deux structure… I wanted to make a contemporary version of that.” With the old structure and its overtones of the partners’ relationship fairly intact, it must have been the walking patterns and broody mood that allowed the dancers to dip into something “contemporary” without even stretching their legs.
Inspired by Amy Winehouse’s bluesy voice and bruising relationships, Arthur Pita let the couple loose in 1960s pop moves and music. As Polunin captured the spirit of James Dean with a sullen swagger, Osipova trailed along in a bouffant skirt, imitating the period style rather than inhabiting it. His short punchy solo caught the edgy slouch of every aggressively energetic teen, but her dissatisfaction seemed hers alone, more a sulk than a characterisation. For a woman whose Mad Scene in Giselle can tear your heart out, I doubt this role offered much in the way of fresh expressive opportunities.
The programme reminded me immediately of Sylvie Guillem’s choices for her retirement tour. But at 26, Osipova is roughly half Guillem’s age, and neither old enough that her body limits her to such slight works nor charismatic enough to invest every glance and gesture with purpose. Her past performances prove beyond doubt that she takes her art and artistry seriously, and those three choreographers are all experienced, talented men. Yet the evening, which promised so much, delivered so little from any of them that I wished she had kept her experimenting to herself. As a public display, it looked personally indulgent and professionally insignificant.
Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin in Run Mary Run. Photograph by Bill Cooper.