Unlike the micturating woman in the Sadler’s toilet cubicle who crowed to her companion that “it’s rather self-indulgent really” I believe all credit is due to Natalia Osipova for wanting to broaden her dance horizons. Like Sylvie Guillem before her, here is a superstar ballerina at the pinnacle of her profession with the energy and curiosity to subject her virtuoso technique to the demands of contemporary dance. So, Osipova’s new triple bill (which will transfer to Edinburgh this summer before returning to London in September) features brand new works created especially for her by a trio of big-name contemporary choreographers: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Russell Maliphant and Arthur Pita. Then, of course, there’s the added piquancy of seeing Osipova dance with her offstage partner Sergei Polunin, the tattooed rebel of the classical dance world who walked out of the Royal Ballet aged 22 in a cloud of disaffection.
Maliphant’s piece, Silent Echo, harnesses the heady combination of real-life romance and preternatural talent into an oblique and ambiguous piece that, although based on the structure of a classical pas de deux, subverts the established tradition in terms of crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics. In the opening section, the pair don’t touch – instead they appear in separate shifting spotlights on a blacked-out stage, gradually spinning into nearly concentric orbits. Although Polunin seems less comfortable with the Maliphant style, Osipova becomes a kind of mesmeric predator, stalking the stage, her arms rippling, crouching and leaping, her loose hair and limbs whipping and scoring space. By comparison, the dancers’ final duet – which climaxes in a series of lifts that rise and crumple – seems a bit underpowered.
Polunin is definitely in his element in Arthur Pita’s sixties-set Run Mary Run, which casts the pair as a teenage couple caught in a doomed narrative of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, played out to the sounds of the Shangri-Las. In a James Dean uniform of t-shirt and jeans, Polunin nonchalantly go-go dances beside a beehived Osipova. The piece’s clichés are intentional, but there’s a real inventive chill to the opening section in which Osipova’s hands emerge from a grave, fluttering apart and clasping as a heartbroken lament plays out. At other points both dancers are moving and funny: he swaggers on and offstage, fag in mouth, while she clings round his waist like a limpet in a shift dress. Then there’s a mischievous kissing dance and a cleverly snaking duet in which a cigarette and shot glass pass between them in perpetual motion. Osipova, by turns giddily lovestruck and petulant, brings a real emotional heft to the piece. Overtaken by desperate little jumps, she sinks and hunches into grief.
In Cherkaoui’s opening piece, Qutb (Arabic for axis), Osipova performs with Jason Kittelberger and James O’Hara, both seasoned contemporary dancers. Against the backdrop of a blotted out sun and bathed in an unnerving red glow, the dancers appear as a kind of mutually supportive, conjoined entity that coils and writhes through a blighted and hostile landscape. Felix Buxton’s electronic score of plaintive strings, sudden squawks, creaks and distant gunfire gives way to the wail of Sufi singers. Kittelberger demonstrates a superhuman strength – most notably, he raises both other dancers aloft with apparent ease and there’s a gasp-worthy moment in which Osipova, standing on his thighs, bends backwards into a perfect c-shape. But there’s also a very human vulnerability about these bodies when they detach from one another or huddle together in the piece’s closing moments.
Osipova was performing at Sadler’s Wells. For more information, click here.