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Breaking out of the box

The last programme Natalia Osipova commissioned at Sadler’s Wells was tenacious but shaky, the Royal Ballet superstar storming the stage with then-boyfriend Sergei Polunin and a trio of hit-and-miss contemporary numbers. This time around, the commissions are stronger and the performances steadier. The six works of “Pure Dance” mix classical variations alongside brand-new solos and duets, with choreography from established dancemakers and emerging artists alike. It’s a lot of faces to try on in one night, but Osipova moves between the disparate routines like a chameleon, demonstrating the expansive versatility of her talent and how eager she is to branch out in the contemporary sphere while continuing to dominate the ballet one.

Performance

Natalia Osipova: “Pure Dance”

Place

Sadler’s Wells, London, UK, September 12-16, 2018

Words

Sara Veale

David Hallberg and Natalia Osipova in rehearsal for Alexei Ratmansky’s “Valse Triste.” Photograph by Stephanie Berger

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The main pas de deux from Anthony Tudor’s 1975 ballet “The Leaves are Fading” marks the programme’s lone legacy piece, an autumnal swirl of pale lights and bittersweet brushes with romance. Osipova looks right at home with the variation’s nimble footwork and light-as-air grande jetés (180 degrees of course), and finds a neat partner in American Ballet Theatre’s David Hallberg, whose tall stature complements rather than overwhelms her tiny frame. His turns look a touch unsteady—a vestige of the foot injury that kept him off the stage for the past two-plus years, perhaps?—but his focus is unwavering, conjuring a stalwart counterpart to Osipova’s buoyant soubrette.

Natalia Osipova
Natalia Osipova and Jonathan Goddard in “Flutter” by Ivan Perez. Photograph by Johan Persson

Iván Pérez’s “Flutter,” a new duet created on Osipova and New Movement Collective founder Jonathan Goddard, demands a swap to bare feet and pedestrian strides—an about-face she happily obliges. The number is not as jolly as its title suggests, but it’s definitely as spry, the pair darting in and out of shadows, flicking and swinging their limbs. The first half sees them operate side by side, like atoms zooming around the same orbit, while its denouement ushers in lush, joyful partnerwork replete with lively lifts. Goddard outstrips Osipova in his easy, instinctive swagger, but only just.

“Six Years Later,” a 2011 piece by Roy Assaf, provides another dash of levity, though it’s tension that takes centre stage. Osipova and American dancer Jason Kittelberger play lovers with a deliberately vague relationship, clenched together by a shadowy history of combat and confession, ardour and apology. An early tangle to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata draws melting, cheek-to-cheek embraces; later they spar, bumping chests and sliding into each other’s blank spaces. A jarring shift to jangly rock hastens the volatility, prompting a tussling sequence in which Osipova wields Kittelberger’s body like a puppet, an interesting flip on the classic man/woman pairing. It’s highly stylised stuff—one of the more spirited pieces on show, though also one of the affected ones. It takes visible effort for Osipova to appear spontaneous and unconstrained in this contemporary context.

Natalia Osipova
Natalia Osipova and Jason Kittleberger in “Six Years Later” by Roy Assaf. Photograph by Johan Persson

Such pretensions are dropped in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Valse Triste,” a fluid, mournful waltz that privileges classical pointework and pulls off high drama all the same. Osipova is in her element, pitching sleek, brisk leaps alongside the softest of glides, and Hallberg also shows fine form, ensnaring his partner in commanding, borderline desperate cradles. Their timing is brilliant and their chemistry even better: for the first time in the programme, our star looks entirely at ease with both the material and her partner.

Two solos round out the bill. Kim Brandstrup’s “In Absentia” is dotted with theatrical flourishes, including a bright-glowing TV that projects David Hallberg’s supersized shadow onto the backdrop. Moody brooding is the M.O. here, the choreography calling for brandished jumps and limbs flung in frustration. Hallberg nails the swivelling torso, chucking his arms forward and letting his body knock on naturally, though his slides are not so organic, more cautious than carefree.

Natalia Osipova
Natalia Osipova in “Ave Maria” by Yuka Oishi. Photograph by Johan Persson

Osipova, on the other hand, shows no hesitation in Yuka Oishi’s “Ave Maria,” which unapologetically posits her as saintly and statuesque: Our Lady of Aplomb. Cloaked in white chiffon, she wrenches her torso and cocks her heels, clutching at an invisible, ethereal pain. The gusts of emotion that pass over her face mostly skirt the right side of melodrama, though a slushy soap opera intensity rears its head now and then.

This eager embrace of theatricality is a huge part of Osipova’s charm: she always commits to her material, whether it’s “Swan Lake” or an experimental creation. The results can vary, but audiences consistently appreciate her as more than just the sum of her (rather luminary) technical parts.

Sara Veale


Sara Veale is a London-based writer and editor. She's written about dance for the Observer, the Spectator, DanceTabs, Auditorium Magazine, Exeunt and more. Her first book, Untamed: The Radical Women of Modern Dance, will be published in 2024.

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