One starts to run out of things to say about Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Don Quixote…
I first saw a 20-year-old Osipova dance it in the 2006 London Bolshoi season (with the much older Denis Matvienko) and concluded: “Natalia Osipova stepped out and let glorious bloody rip. …All up it was one of those nights that make you so happy to be alive.”
A year later Jeffery Taylor saw Osipova and an 18-year-old Vasiliev: “How do you describe the status after best? Genius is the only word left.” And Clement Crisp: “The Bolshoi owes it to posterity to film this cast in live performance.”
And in 2010 I opened my review with: “It’s a couple of days since the Bolshoi unleashed their Don Quixote on us and I’m still rather shell-shocked!”
Three years later, a different company but Osipova and Vasiliev are still doing their thing and two days on I’m still glowing in admiration about it and left wondering how on earth the Royal Ballet are going to deliver anywhere near the same level of amazement when their new (Carlos Acosta) version arrives in October. They could do worse than have O&V guest, but it’s more than that: it’s not actually just about them – it’s about great Russian companies delivering bravura at all levels in a show-off piece. Love the home company as I do, the Mikhailovsky put on a wonderful display of classical excellence that we just don’t routinely see in the UK.
From her first steps on stage Osipova pushes the envelope – all the steps are quicker, bigger, stretched further than any other dancer manages on stage. It’s as if she can’t stop herself, or conserve power for later – later will take care of itself. And so it proves. Her jumps are visibly longer and higher than others, her turns faster – in pirouettes she is up there with Cuba’s legendary Viengsay Valdes. But Osipova can act and has a fine sense of comic timing. She gives everything, and I find no fault.
Vasiliev is odd. He has the most unballetic body you are likely to see – it seems badly proportioned and his thighs and buttocks sized to win Mr Universe. And then he jumps and does his technical thing and you smile with him at his cleverness and chutzpah. They are well matched because they both go a level beyond what you normally expect of great principal dancers. On the night that’s perhaps summed up best when after a dizzying preamble she hurls herself like an Exocet across the stage and he catches her – not safely, but late: “Oh my God, he’s missed her” you start to think, but they both surface smiling and you’ve been had. But they are not for everybody – there are inevitably some who see ballet reduced to circus and sacred steps abused. Not me and I joined the standing ovation with the audience – we need people who bend rules and go for it.
Other notes of distinction – the Mikhailovsky orchestra under Pavel Bubelnikov bringing the Minkus score to vibrant and fast-paced life, the colourful designs of Vyacheslav Okunev, the character acting of Marat Shemiunov, a dignified Don Quixote and Pavel Maslennikov as the rich fop, Gamache – an unbelievable man brought to life. But Don Quixote has an abundance of soloist roles and I can’t think of one that was not technically accomplished or looking strong. I always bang on about boys not being together and to see 8 Toreadors move as one (or as near as damn) is a wonderful luxury. Ekaterina Borchenko, a principle, danced the Queen of the Dryads with immaculate precision and gorgeous dignity, the opposite of Mariam Ugrekhelidze in the Gypsey dances, only in the corps and yet blessed with some of Osipova’s extra stage-consuming energy – equally gorgeous but in a totally different way. But I say again, ultimately this was a fine *company* performance topped by two stunning dancers. More, more, more.
Earlier I saw the company’s production of Giselle, not with the O&V power couple (who were enthusiastically reviewed by Jann Parry), but with Polina Semionova and Denis Matvienko. Semionova is perhaps best known for not dancing in London – she was the dancer Derek Deane desperately wanted to open his Royal Albert Hall Swan Lake with Vadim Muntagirov (in 2010), but visa problems meant Daria Klimentova had to stand in – the rest is history as they say. While it might not have been Swan Lake one could definitely see why Deane was smitten – she wraps her imposing technical precision (Moscow training) and musicality around realistic acting. She seems to have no ‘side’ on her – you get what you see, a pleasant and pretty girl, cruelly let down. Last year she joined ABT (lucky New York) and is guesting with the Mikhailovsky, as is Matvienko, who these last 18 months has directed the company in Kiev. He’s a dependable partner who camps up the cad image in Act 1 but there was no threat of long-term excitement with him, I fancy.
I rather like the Mikhailovsky Giselle, if possibly for the wrong reasons. It features an awful lot of wooden acting and that made me smile, sit up, and notice the naturalness of Semionova and one or two others all the more. I don’t think anybody acts this ‘bad’ naturally and it springs from another tradition. Ballet is a pretty weird way to tell a story anyhow so why shouldn’t story-telling be formal and stylised? So while I smiled at the unnatural wafting gestures in unison of the corps and the pantomime caricature of a mother I also came to embrace it as almost mime-like in its approach. Yet oddly the big bit of mime we associate with the plot – for Giselle’s mother – was missing. The production also has a massive misjudgement in having moving trees in the forest. In part they move to unmask the Queen of the Wilis and Giselle, which I can go along with, but they they also move for no apparent reason and out of sync too, so a casual looking at the stage had me feeling lightheadedly woozy at one point. But the corps as Wilis are strong, the sparkling spirits and ‘flying’ of Giselle are pure 19th century cleverness and the orchestra sounded strong under Valery Ovsyanikov. When so much is the same in ballet productions these days, I came away feeling I’d seen something unique and genuine in its different take. That and that Deane is right about Polina.