The Royal Ballet
London, Royal Opera House
18 January 2014
Gallery of pictures by Dave Morgan
It looks as though Natalia Osipova is to become Sylvie Guillem’s successor at the Royal Ballet, giving her idiosyncratic interpretation of a role whether or not it aligns with the company’s existing production. The result can be both stimulating and disconcerting.
Peter Wright’s 1985 production of Giselle places the heroine firmly at the heart of village life in Act I. She is, in theory, little different from the local girls (wearing the same sort of peasant dress) except in her passion for dancing. Osipova, vivid and shy, is outstanding from the moment she takes to the air in Giselle’s signature ballonnés. She is, nonetheless, convincing as a rural village maiden, overawed at first by her fine-mannered suitor, Loys/Albrecht, as indeed she will prove to be by the noble hunting party. She is well aware of her humble social status.
Osipova’s Giselle is uncertain enough of her lover’s ardour for her to take the flower test seriously – ‘he loves me not’. She evidently hasn’t told her mother about him, and she’s bluffing when she claims to Bathilde (and her mother, Berthe) that she’s engaged to him. Osipova has thought through every nuance, including the heart condition that Giselle is trying to minimise. No wonder Deirdre Chapman’s Berthe is so stern: she’s had to nurture a febrile, damaged daughter who lives to dance.
When Osipova mimes the ‘dance’ gesture, revolving her hands high above her head, vitality sparks from her fingers. When Bathilde – Christina Arestis, supremely condescending – invites Giselle to show off her prowess, Osipova revels in the chance to rejoice in what she does best. Seemingly artless, she sails through the solo, until her flurry of piqué turns at the end implies that she’s hyper-excited. This Giselle is in a precarious state, even before she realises she’s been betrayed.
Her mad scene is in character, but in the context of Wright’s naturalistic production, it comes across as histrionic. Too much hair, too much flailing and falling. As if embarrassed, the villagers leave her alone with mother at the end of Act I, inapppropriately like Lady Capulet with Tybalt’s corpse. Albrecht has become too involved: his loyal squire Wilfred should swiftly whisk him away from trouble.
Johannes Stepanek has been a correct courtier up to this point, properly advising Carlos Acosta’s Albrecht against an unsuitable dalliance. Acosta’s Albrecht is very much an aristocrat, pretending to learn peasants’ ways of carousing. He is a noble man in every way, sincerely expressing his remorse in Act II. What Acosta now lacks in stamina, he makes up for in presence (and multiple pirouettes). Thomas Whitehead as Hilarion stands up to him manfully.
Act II becomes problematic because Osipova is so much more daemonic than dominatrix Myrtha (Hikaru Kobayashi). Once Osipova is summonsed to assume Giselle’s spectral fate as a Wili, she is overtaken by an unseen force. However much she wants to protect repentant Albrecht, her legs and feet tug her away from him. Her phenomenal elevation means that she can accomplish the Cecchetti assemblés and soubresauts (with both knees bent before landing) that few Giselles can manage. She does not, however, appear ethereal – especially in a low-cut, sleeveless costume that exposes her athletic shoulders.The demure outline of a Romantic ballerina with long drooping neck is not for her.
So, like Guillem, she gives us a modern Giselle, at odds with Wright’s corps of obedient Wilis. The battle to save Albrecht is not between her and Myrtha but between the dual aspects of her nature as vengeful siren and love-struck innocent. The tussle can look tortuous, even ugly: Osipova’s arms and large hands don’t display the finesse of a Royal Ballet port de bras. Yet her Act II is compelling in its intensity, her leave-taking of Albrecht heartbreaking. She is a rare artist – but still more of a guest artist than a company ballerina.