Pure Dance: The Leaves are Fading excerpt, Valse Triste, Flutter, Six Years Later, In Absentia, Ave Maria
New York, City Center
3 April 2019
Fire and Ice
Ever since their first electrifying performance of Giselle at American Ballet Theatre a decade ago, there has been a buzz about the partnership between the American dancer David Hallberg – tall, fair, elegant – and the Russian virtuoso Natalia Osipova. It’s understandable. That Giselle and a Romeo and Juliet a few years later are indelibly impressed in the memories of the people who saw them. Hallberg credited Osipova in his memoir for giving him the will to return to dance after a series of injuries that kept him from the stage for almost two years. But partnerships, like friendships, are delicate things, particularly difficult in the context of today’s jet-setting, peripatetic careers. Both dancers were once based at ABT; then they briefly overlapped at the Bolshoi. She is now based at the Royal Ballet and he at Ballet Theatre.
Much of the hype around Pure Dance, a program of mostly new dances commissioned by Osipova, was centered on the opportunity to see them dance together once again. Too much, given that the two only share the stage twice over the course of the evening. Pure Dance, co-produced by Sadler’s Wells and New York City Center, is very much Osipova’s evening, an exploration of her own curiosities and tastes. She dances with three different partners – Hallberg, Jonathan Goddard, and Jason Kittelberger – as well as by herself. All but two of the works are new, created for the occasion by an international array of choreographers, some better known, some less: Iván Perez, Kim Brandstrup, Yuka Oishi, and Alexei Ratmansky. Throughout, Osipova impresses with the force of her dancing and the hunger with which she takes to different ways of moving. On pointe or barefoot, she’s fully in command.
The program is framed by her two duets with Hallberg, both classical, with romantic undertones. The first, excerpted from Antony Tudor’s 1975 work The Leaves are Fading, turned out to be the disappointment of the evening. Perhaps Osipova and Hallberg were nervous, or under-rehearsed, but their performance looked forced and rather self-conscious, offering little of the rapture Leaves is known for. It’s not an ideal choice for an evening of short pieces, either; cut off from the rest of the ballet, it feels truncated and lacking in atmosphere.
By the end of the evening, things had settled. Osipova’s prodigious energy had lost its hard edge; Hallberg looked more relaxed. More importantly, Ratmansky’s piece, Valse Triste (set to Sibelius’s eponymous orchestral work) made intelligent use of the contrast between the two dancers’ energies. The six-minute pas de deux is built around the idea of Osipova’s uncontainable drive, with Hallberg cast as a rapt observer straining to keep up. She initiates much of the movement, jumping backwards into his arms or taking his hand and leading him into a folk dance. Near the end, she dives forward again and again, like a rocket; each time, Hallberg catches her at the very last minute, almost buckling from the force of her momentum.
Valse Triste works precisely because it subtly questions this notion of an ideal partnership between Osipova and Hallberg. Her dancing has a grounded, no-nonsense quality that defies ballet convention. (That’s part of the reason The Leaves are Fading doesn’t quite work. She’s no delicate maiden.) Which may explain why she looked so comfortable with her two other partners in Pure Dance, Jonathan Goddard and Jason Kittelberger. Unfettered by the baggage of projecting balletic ease, Osipova could treat Goddard and Kittelberger simply as partners in discovery.
In Flutter, by the Spanish choreographer Iván Pérez (whose work is new to me), she and Goddard skipped, jumped, and skittered across the stage with nervous energy, barely touching the ground. The music, Nico Muhly’s Mothertongue, had a similar skittering quality. In a recording – all the music was recorded – a woman’s voice sputtered sequences of numbers over an electronic drone. (Shades of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach.) Osipova took to the filigreed, almost chaotic choreography with delight. Six Years Later, by Roy Assaf, suffered from a variety of clichés: the use of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to denote emotional depth, the back-and-forth between affection and aggression. (I love you! I hate you!) During one long section, Osipova smacked her chest and shoulders against Kittelberger’s (in ¾ time), as if beating him into submission. After which, the music changed to a song by the 1960’s Scottish band Marmalade, and the two started to joke around and smile. It wasn’t clear whether the transition was meant to be taken as tongue in cheek or at face value. Either way, it felt trite. Soon enough, they were fighting again.
Despite reservations about the piece itself, it was fascinating to see how easily Osipova slipped into Assaf’s grounded, barefoot, muscular style. (The piece premiered with Assaf’s own company in 2011, in Tel Aviv.) Here, as in Flutter, she seemed completely liberated. The same can’t really be said for Hallberg in his foray into a less structured, more free-flowing movement style in Kim Brandstrup’s In Absentia. The solo is a portrait of a lonely man torn between a television screen and his musical musings to the Bach Chaconne in D minor from the Second Partita. Hallberg’s dancing was more constrained than liberated, his movements clipped; he couldn’t seem to get out of his own head.
The other solo, for Osipova, was a meditation set to Schubert’s Ave Maria. Leaving aside the mawkishness of the musical choice, the dance was inoffensive enough, a mix of bourrées, high leg extensions, and sinuous arm movements performed by Osipova in a white dress. Pretty, but disappointingly thin.
So, is Pure Dance a success? It depends on what you’re looking for. Osipova is as exciting, and as powerful a dancer as ever. Among the commissions, only Valse Triste and Flutter are worthy of further exploration. And her storied partnership with Hallberg? Perhaps not as fresh as it once was, but, in the hands of a choreographer with imagination, like Ratmansky, still able to produce some fireworks.