London Coliseum, London, UK; August 6, 2014

Maggie Foyer

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in 'Mercy'.  Photo © Gene Schiavone

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in ‘Mercy’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

I had approached the evening with some misgivings wondering how these two great classical ballet stars, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, would take to dabbling in bare-foot modernity but the results exceeded all expectations. Dressed mainly in simple shifts and briefs and dispensing with opera house glamour their star quality burned as bright as ever while the warm intimacy of their relationship over flowed into the auditorium making all three duets compelling viewing.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Mercy” is an unsettling piece. It opens on a vicious display of male aggression towards a passive female while music of transcendental beauty rises from the pit. But Cherkaoui’s work is never facile and the relationship weaves a convoluted path to redemption. Cherkaoui, more than most choreographers, exploits the talents his dancers bring which, in this case, are formidable.

Both dancers were impressive in their mastery of the organic flow so typical of Cherkaoui’s style and the occasional virtuosic lift or jump showed the range of their skills. Osipova is a rare gem; an artist who can reach the heights and the depths, and as easily display the innocent charm of an ingénue. She has the more interesting character revealing vulnerability and contrasting strength through her dance while Vasiliev’s character was less complicated and solidly masculine. The quality of performance and the vitality of Cherkaoui’s invention made the duet mesmerising. The music from Heinrich Schütz and Johann Hermann Schein performed by L’Ensemble Akademia provided heavenly accompaniment particularly the voice of Indian singer Arun Dravid.

Ohad Naharin is also a choreographer of depth but one who enjoys introducing a popular touch. In “Passo”, he skilfully balances a complicated set of dynamics both in the movements and the mood. Osipova’s opening solo sets the mood with sudden shifts in the movement igniting sparks before a pregnant pause. This serious opening lightens as Vasiliev joins in parodying her moves and a game of one-upmanship begins. As the pace slows Naharin introduces a different humour to the dance rhythms of English Renaissance songs starting with “Greensleeves”. Their sense of shared fun, skipping and marching around the stage like a couple of kids, had sudden moments of tenderness as she leaps into his  arms and wraps herself, childlike, round his body.

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in 'Facada'.  Photo © Doug Gifford

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in ‘Facada’.
Photo © Doug Gifford

Arthur Pita’s “Facada” provided light hearted fun although it didn’t match up to the choreographic strength of the earlier works. The theme of the jilted bride that had worked so well in “God’s Garden” was overextended here and the comedy wore a tad thin. Osipova is a fine actress and made the most of her character literally weeping buckets of tears while Vasiliev celebrates his escape from matrimony with an exuberant display of leaps. Some of the most interesting choreographic moments came in her dream fantasy as she is hoisted aloft in a cloud of bridal tulle by her never-to-be spouse dressed only in boxer shorts and sock suspenders. She then transforms to become the vengeful wili, strangles him without ceremony, then executes a powerful folk-inspired dance on his grave. Elizabeth McGorian, greyhound elegant and playing the comedy with the detachment of a couture model subtly dealt with the numerous props all complemented by Frank Moon’s blend of fado music.

This was one of the most captivating dance performances I’ve seen at the Coli, an intriguing mix of the best of classical and contemporary talents: definitely a one-off.