In twenty years I have had four students who could listen with superhuman attention. All of them were dancers.– Sarah Manguso, 300 Arguments.
Natalia Osipova is a dancer. Obviously, right? But I mean, Natalia Osipova is a dancer in a way that makes her not simply a human-who-dances but a being whose entire body is in touch with some low-frequency wave transmission hardly anyone else is capable of hearing. She’s tuned into the sound of molecules rubbing together or the collective vibration of thoughts. If dancers are excellent listeners, as Sarah Manguso suggests, then Osipova must be listening to the entire world.
Pure Dance, her new programme of six short works, opens with The Leaves are Fading by Anthony Tudor. Against a sky blue expanse, Osipova and David Hallberg flit and flirt across the stage, her girlishness and his easy charm giving the piece the suggestion of summertime freshness, despite it’s autumnal title. They’re as perfect and impermanent as day lilies.
But along with this calculated prettiness (like someone put La Fille mal gardée in a blender, then thinned it with contemporary stock), is something slightly sadder. The pair wear flimsy cream-coloured costumes (Patricia Zipprodt) streaked with pink, like strings of sharp rhubarb cutting through crème brûlée. They look similar to the paintings of Christine Ay Tjoe, an artist who creates abstract works that simultaneously look like fallen petals and a blood-soaked abattoir floor. It’s a beauty it almost hurts to look at.
The second piece, Flutter by Iván Peréz, continues this theme of ephemeral loveliness with Osipova and Jonathan Goddard wearing rice paper-thin costumes (Christina Cunningham) and twirling across the stage like sycamore seeds. There’s a playfulness to the whole thing, but one that’s a little bit dangerous, the kind of play fighting that turns sour with an actual scratch or an actual bite. In my head, the scene is soundtracked by The Cure’s The Lovecats, in reality it’s set to Nico Muhly’s ‘Mothertongue’.
At one point, Goddard picks up the crouched Osipova and rocks her in the make-shift swing of his arms, then the piece transfers to a beat that wasn’t there before, and it’s like we’re watching a couple who’ve made the switch from morning sex in flimsy pyjamas to a sweaty nightclub in translucent clothes. The other piece that makes a similar transition is Six Years Later by Roy Assaf, straight after the interval.
Performed with Jason Kittelberger, Osipova – in a give-the-costume-dept-a-medal decision – dances in the kind of the trousers that have to be called ‘pants’ even if you’re English. It’s another piece where the erotic tension resides in whether this couple are about to go to bed with each other or about to beat each other up, then storm off like school kids. It’s sweetly perfect, joyful and very funny. I stop writing and hold my hand to my chest like I’m impersonating a cartoon of someone finding something really really adorable.
And then I remain in this penitent position throughout all of Valse Triste by Alexei Ratmansky, partly because it’s danced to a composition by Jean Sibelius known as a ‘sad waltz’ (and what is sadder than a sad waltz?) and partly because it’s performed by Osipova with Hallberg, and their partnership is exquisite. His elasticated athleticism provides the framework for her fluid shapes to hang off and around like he was invented exclusively for this purpose.
One of the notable things about all these works – and the two others, a spectral solo by Hallberg and a new creation by Yuka Oishi – is how short they are. Three are only 6-7 minutes long. And yet they seem so much longer. Normally that’s a criticism of something on stage, but here it’s a compliment. Each is so complete it would be enough to see one in isolation and still return home satisfied.
In describing the last work of the evening, a clever solo dance personifying feminine strength and set to Schubert’s Ave Maria, Oishi says, ‘I believe that dance is a language which we are only able to feel.’ Perhaps this is why dancers are such great listeners, because they’re actually translators. And why, in turn, they make an audience such good watchers, so that more is seen in seven minutes than in a normal seven hours.
Pure Dance was performed at Sadler’s Wells from 12 – 16 September 2018. Click here for more details.