Ballet hasn't seen such a glamorous, rebellious couple in a while. Natalia Osipova, the Bolshoi ballerina now the jewel in the Royal Ballet's crown, and Sergei Polunin, the wild ballet prodigy who walked out of his globally-envied role as youngest ever principal at the Royal in 2012, dance together in a programme commissioned by Osipova at Sadler's Wells.
The programme features some of the ballerina's favourite choreographers: famously curious choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who she calls 'a great friend', Russell Maliphant, who worked regularly with Sylvie Guillem in the second half of her career, and Arthur Pita, who Osipova worked with on a similarly dramatic piece with ex-fiancé Ivan Vasiliev. Polunin features in the Maliphant and Pita pieces.
We open with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Qutb, drawing on elements and planets. Before a red sun eclipsed by a black sphere, a knot of bodies rises. The small, sharp figure of Osipova rises from amongst the limbs, then dips to drag her two partners bodily by the wrists. Osipova and James O’Hara levitate and drift above the floor, all weight borne by a miraculously powerful Jason Kittelberger.
In all the ‘Osilunin’ excitement of the evening, the duet between Kittelberger and Osipova is an unexpected highlight, she perched like a fractious hawk atop his panther-esque form.
The ballerina admits in the programme notes, ‘I look at dancers like James and Jason and I don’t understand how they fall so simply. I don’t know how to do that.’ For those of us who have seen what she is capable of on the ballet stage, it’s almost hard to confess that Cherkaoui’s movement, combining power and fluidity is at times visibly difficult for her. As for James O’Hara’s flowing-haired solo, never has a ponytail been more acutely wanting at Sadler's Wells.
Russell Maliphant's Silent Echo is a more measured creature. Statuesque, Polunin appears under a light, only to disappear into blackness scattered with tiny stars, as Osipova looms out of the dark and vanishes in her turn. Michael Hulls’ lighting shadows every muscle, Polunin in particular looking like an Olympian.
Perhaps Maliphant’s is the only piece that allows the drama of this pair appearing on stage together the weight it deserves - it’s what has brought most of the audience here. A classical structure ends with a quiet, controlled duet. Yet the movement never reaches the pitch set by music and light, and apart from one series of breathcatching turns, there’s little to show off either Osipova's or Polunin's skill.
After the second interval, the fun begins. Lightly inspired by the life of Amy Winehouse and to a soundtrack of sixties death-and-romance girlband The Shangri-Las, Arthur Pita’s Run Mary Run cuts all ties with the pair’s balletic heritage. As lovers in this ‘something like a 60s road movie’, no wonder these two rebels enjoy themselves.
The audience a little less, perhaps. Watching two of the greatest ballet dancers of their generation hand jive is excruciating, and the guilt of that moment must lie squarely at Arthur Pita’s feet. But Osipova makes a sweet, sad teenager in thrall to her drug-addled boyfriend, and Polunin is predictably capable as the booze-swilling bad boy. Their emergence from the earth of their own grave is a striking motif.
Choreography though is thin on the ground. Pita is a fabulously flamboyant storyteller, but these two don’t have the melodrama to fill his spaces, and the material leaves them too little to do.
All three creators praise the Russian ballerina’s ‘incredible attack’ and energy for new movement. And, after a programme of choreographers who channel variously breakdance, yoga, tai chi and sixties teen melodrama, who can disagree? Even her marvellous technique aside, the woman’s a titan for testing herself so relentlessly.
In this programme, she has perhaps gone too far, the test too extreme. Comparisons with Sylvie Guillem’s move into contemporary have been rife, but Guillem’s talent was for choosing choreographers who suited her.
The excitement of seeing this gifted young couple together on stage doesn’t count for nothing though. Let them continue to experiment. We’ll still be booking a ticket.
The super-couple will be back at the end of September, to perform this programme again at Sadler's Wells. Book here.
|What||Osipova & Polunin|
|Where||Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R 4TN | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Angel (underground)|
29 Jun 16 – 03 Jul 16, Plus Sat. at 2:30pm and Sun. at 4pm
27 Sep 16 – 01 Oct 16, 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM
|Website||Click here to book via the Sadler's Wells website|