Natalia Osipova & Artists
City Center
New York, New York

November 11, 2016
Run Mary Run, Qutb, Silent Echo

Jerry Hochman

Le tout Sheepshead Bay, together with non-Russian ballet lovers, Natalia Osipova fans, those interested in seeing Sergei Polunin for the first time, and younger, hipper, “whoop”er-snappers, flocked to City Center on Friday for a program of contemporary dances by one of the world’s foremost ballerinas and her companion, whose reputation for artistic brilliance is exceeded only by his reputation for a measure of irreverence and uncontrollability. In terms of the quality of execution, no one could have left the theater disappointed – except for those who may have thought they’d be seeing examples of classical Russian ballet.

The program, which opened the previous night, included three dances, each a U.S. premiere: Run Mary Run, choreographed by Arthur Pita; Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Qutb, and Silent Echo, by Russell Maliphant. The choreographers are well-known in Europe, but with the possible exception of Maliphant, have less of a track record here. I mention this because, anecdotally, there’s somewhat of a gulf between European and U.S. audiences as to the relative merit of dances that are deemed “contemporary.” Specifically, U.S. audiences are thought of as more conservative on a number of different levels. So seeing these pieces danced by a world-class ballerina not yet in her prime, much less past it, can be jarring. That aside, these dances, overall, are well-crafted and were brilliantly executed by Osipova, Polunin, and their fellow dancers, Jason Kittelberger and James O’Hara.

Natalia Osipova in Russell Maliphant's "Silent Echo" Photo Bill Cooper

Natalia Osipova in
Russell Maliphant’s “Silent Echo”
Photo Bill Cooper

Of the three, the opening piece was by far the most entertaining – but it also was the most upsetting, albeit intentionally. I disliked Run Mary Run a lot as I watched it, but appreciated Pita’s theatrical skill, and Osipova and Polunin’s execution. But the more I think about it (it’s one of those dances that, unless you feel like purging it from your mind as quickly as possible, the more it pummels your brain like a bad headache), the more I think, despite flaws, that it’s a singular achievement. There aren’t many dances that one can hate and love at the same time, but this is one of them. And the difference between this dance and another created in the wake of Amy Winehouse’s life and death, Trey McIntyre’s Big Ones (which Ballet X brought with it to its Joyce Theater season last summer) is like the difference between night and day. Literally.

Run Mary Run is the second piece by Pita that I’ve seen – the other was The Ballad of Mack and Ginny, which Pita choreographed for Wendy Whelan and Edward Watson, that was presented at last month’s Fall for Dance Festival. Based on the two, as well as on a listing of other dances he’s created, Pita, a Johannesburg-born choreographer who’s been based in London since 1991, comes across to me as a consummate theatrical choreographer who specializes in dark-themed narrative dances. He also doesn’t hesitate to shock an audience, but the “shock” is appropriate for the subject matter – and in this case the subject matter invites it.

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin in Arthur Pita's "Run Mary Run" Photo Bill Cooper

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin
in Arthur Pita’s “Run Mary Run”
Photo Bill Cooper

The dance was inspired by Winehouse’s album Back to Black, which itself was inspired by songs by 60s “girl groups,” including in particular the Shangri-Las. It’s also quite obviously inspired by Winehouse herself, and Pita assembles and revises parts of her life to make for a more dramatic presentation (like her life wasn’t dramatic enough itself).

In a program note, Pita states that the piece is “something that’s a bit of a road movie, a doomed love tale about an obsessive, possessive relationships with some sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” It’s all that to be sure, but it’s also “about” the unanswerable cosmic question “why?” Of course, it doesn’t answer that question; it can’t. Instead, Pita has created a monstrously depressing but vivid, daring, and emotionally spot-on dance that relates, but doesn’t attempt to explain or condone…or criticize.

Pita constructs his piece using bits and pieces (and occasional entire songs) cherry-picked from the Shangri-Las oeuvre (as well as one song by the Crystals, another 60s girl group). It’s tempting to criticize Pita’s choices here as not being representative either of 60s girl groups in general and the “types” of songs they were known for, or of a subset of these types of songs – “bad boy” and “death” songs, also called “teen tragedy” songs – that were then endemic (and not limited to girl groups). But this is Pita’s selection, and is not intended to be representative. Indeed, Pita doesn’t use the Shangri-Las most popular hit, and perhaps the one that most exemplifies girls falling for bad boys and the ensuing inevitable death spiral – Leader of the Pack – because that’s not where he’s going (or where Winehouse was going). He doesn’t use the Crystal’s top hit He’s a Rebel for the same reasons. In the first instance, Pita’s looking for a style that the Shangri-Las pioneered (although, as with most other teen tragedy songs, they didn’t write the songs) that he describes as, and indeed were, ahead of their time. Leader of the Pack isn’t the same as the others stylistically. More significantly, there’s no nobility in death for the bad boy in Run Mary Run; he’s no leader or rebel. And there’s no explanation for the susceptibility, blindness (or, some might say, insight) of the girl who loves him – it’s just a sad fact.

Run Mary Run is structured as a flashback in melodramatic, almost operatic style. Interspersed with the song snippets, Pita uses music by Frank Moon (and one composition by David Lynch) to move the action forward – in a way, as if the songs [Past Present, Future; Give Us Your Blessings; Give Him a Great Big Kiss; and most significantly, Remember (Walking in the Sand)] are arias, and the musical interludes [(Night Bell With Lightning; Heroin (Part I) and Heroin (Part 2)] are akin to récitatif.

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin in Arthur Pita's "Run Mary Run" Photo Bill Cooper

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin
in Arthur Pita’s “Run Mary Run”
Photo Bill Cooper

It begins on a barren landscape/waterfront, with a pile of something (grave/sand dune) downstage right. Slowly, one arm, then another, materialize from the dune, dribble sand (the sands of time, sans hourglass), and eventually play with each other as if they were the wings of some disembodied avian species. And, occasionally, the arms intertwine. Eventually, a body emerges from the grave/dune, covered head to toe in a black cape, looking and moving like the remains of a weary old woman, or a black-caped ghost/angel of death. She moves around the stage in apparent agony, or mourning, then removes the head covering, revealing Osipova looking like photos I’ve seen of Winehouse, except with flaming red hair. The woman returns to the grave, pulls the other body (Polunin) out, and the two writhe on the stage floor. She wanders offstage while he disappears, and then she returns, cape removed, as a teeny-bopperish girl in a lime minidress (the sets and costume were designed by Luis F. Carvalho). She prances around until she sees Polunin, and quicker than you can say Run, Mary, Run, they’re on top of each other having pseudo sex. Eventually Polunin lifts her up and, while still joined at the groin, her legs wrapped around his hips, he swirls this two-person body into the wings in a whirlwind. A spiral that begins her downward spiral.

Not too shabby for an opening.

Eventually, and of course not surprisingly, the relationship becomes (as Pita indicated) obsessive. And Polunin’s character begins (graphically) to inject heroin. The Heroin Part 1 segment condenses this first exposure to include a bad reaction (ovedose?), and his removal from the scene (presumably to rehab). But he returns, they can’t resist each other, he relapses and dies, and she’s next seen back at the beginning, in that black cape, to join him in the grave.

The weakest aspect of Run Mary Run, is Pita’s choreography. The palette is limited, and there are just so many ways that one can choreographically depict one in heroine’s death throes. There’s some running around the stage, a few opportunities for Osipova to jump that are remindful of her ballerina prowess and for Polunin to appear muscular, but mostly they’re just all over each other. Normally this lack of choreographic variety would be fatal to the piece, but the choreography isn’t particularly critical here – the staging and the way the story is moved forward is. That having been said, there are moments here – limited by the subject matter and the story Pita creates – of brilliance. Most particularly, when Polunin is tormented by heroin withdrawal (either in Part 1 or Part 2, I can’t recall), Osipova is given choreography that echoes her “mad scene” in Giselle. As I watched it unfold, my mind exploded with recognition, and astonishment. How could Giselle have loved that cad Albrecht? How could “Mary” love that loner/outsider/cad “Jimmy” (from Give Us Your Blessing, which includes the line “run Mary run,” which of course has a double meaning)? And how could we be accepting of one as emblematic of love’s forgiveness and redemption, and not be willing to understand, much less accept, the other?

We may dislike their characters, but Osipova and Polunin (particularly Osipova) act up a storm, without overdoing it. For what it is, Run Mary Run is an exceptional piece of work.

Natalia Osipova, Jason Kittelberger, and James O'Hara in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's "Qutb" Photo Bill Cooper

Natalia Osipova, Jason Kittelberger,
and James O’Hara
in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Qutb”
Photo Bill Cooper

Compared to Pita’s piece, the other two dances on the program are tame, and although there’s more “choreography,” aren’t as impressive.

Qutb attempts to visualize spirituality and mysticism – a tough enough job under any circumstances, but particularly difficult when the choreography is limited to extraordinary athletic displays of flexibility, strength, and timing. Cherkaoui explains in program notes that “Qutb” is an Arabic word that translates as axis or pivot, and that it’s also a spiritual symbol in Sufism that stands for the perfect human being or the “universal man”: a spiritual leader who passes on knowledge and has a divine connection with God or Allah. Fine. But he also says his dancers incarnate many things. At times they’re like the suffering victims of a natural disaster, showing slow healing, redemption, and mutual support; and that they can also be interpreted as celestial bodies or even mythological entities interacting through space. Shades, perhaps, of Ashton’s Monotones, I thought to myself. [And yes, I use the word “shades” advisedly.]

Natalia Osipova, Jason Kittelberger, and James O'Hara in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's "Qutb" Photo Bill Cooper

Natalia Osipova, Jason Kittelberger,
and James O’Hara
in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Qutb”
Photo Bill Cooper

All this may be worthwhile goals for a dance. But what Cherkaoui has created is less a sense of suffering than one of effort – certainly extraordinary work by the dancers, but it’s neither a Middle Eastern form of Monotones nor an attempt to involve the audience in anything more than seeing superb dancers exhibit interesting ways in which to intricately maneuver their bodies, over, under, around and through other bodies (or, in the case of solos, themselves) as they twist, roll around, rotate, undulate, oscillate, lift and balance themselves and each other – and occasionally dance in tandem – looking totally emotionless and as if in a trance. The dancers – Osipova, Kittelbeger, and O’Hara – danced phenomenally, but they’re stones in motion, albeit hot stones. (And I found the moment when the dancers assemble as if posing as a Hindu deity somewhat perplexing.) For all its mysticism and spirituality, Qutb has lots of heat, but no heart.

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin in Russell Maliphant's "Silent Echo" Photo Bill Cooper

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin
in Russell Maliphant’s “Silent Echo”
Photo Bill Cooper

In Silent Echo, Maliphant has created a fine if not particularly distinctive work of abstract contemporary dance that, at least to some extent, integrates the ballet wizardry that many in Friday’s audience were there to see.

The overall visual premise is simple: Osipova and Polunin are “silent echoes” of each other. They don’t quite dance identical combinations, but close to it. Polunin first appears, shirtless, in a cone of light; then a cone shifts to Osipova, then back to Polunin as Osipova moves to a different position on stage, then back to Osipova, and it proceeds like that – all the while arms swing, torsos twist, and bodies slowly spin until the lights separately shine down on both concurrently, and then subdivide into four beams into which the pair move (separately). Then the dance expands as dim light spreads over the entire stage and eventually the pair come together, but the sense that they’re opposing but complementary forces remains.

Sergei Polunin in Russell Maliphant's "Silent Echo" Photo Bill Cooper

Sergei Polunin in
Russell Maliphant’s “Silent Echo”
Photo Bill Cooper

The piece is memorable to the extent it is (and it’s the most accessible and interesting Maliphant piece that I’ve seen) not for its structure, but for the way Maliphant integrates distinct ballet steps and combinations into what otherwise is a contemporary dance. Most exemplary is a sequence in which Osipova executes a fast series of demi pointe chaînés turns moving in a sort of semi-circle mid-stage to upstage right, and Polunin follows with an even faster sequence of the same chaînés turns, with his arms raised above his head to form a diamond-shape , turning faster than Osipova had (which was intentionally built into the sequence), but also faster than I’ve ever seen any male anywhere in any choreographic context execute these turns, in perfect balance, with his upper body moving so fast that the diamond-shape turned into a three dimensional object. The audience collectively gasped. By itself, this moment that lasted only a matter of seconds might have been worth the price of admission.

But the moment also illustrated the limitation of this programming, at least in the U.S. I’m happy that Osipova and Polunin were given the opportunity to dance what they obviously wanted to dance. But – like those Russian emigres from Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach, and other New York neighborhoods, I could see this exhibition one time and that would be sufficient, but I could watch Osipova dance…Giselle, repeatedly, without ever tiring of it.