Natalia Osipova: Force of Nature
New York City Center
New York, New York

January 21, 2023
Giselle (pas de deux), Flames of Paris (pas de deux), Manon (pas de deux), Pure, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, Dance of the Blessed Spirits, Weight of It (world premiere), Valse Triste, Ashes

Jerry Hochman

There’s a trajectory that certain stellar dancers, primarily ballerinas, follow when they reach a point in their careers when the classical roles that made them famous begin to appear less challenging to them or no longer show them off at their best, or when they prefer to experiment with other dance forms. Natalia Osipova, a star Bolshoi ballerina who has spent most of her recent years with The Royal Ballet, entered that phase several years ago, and continued it with a one night only program Saturday night at New York City Center titled “Force of Nature.” The title, combined with the memory of Osipova’s previous pseudo-solo programs, did not promise an exceptional evening.

Although the program was a mix of positives and negatives, overall Force of Nature proved more rewarding than I’d anticipated. Much of the credit for this, beyond it being a showcase for Osipova’s abilities, goes to an American dancer / choreographer named Jason Kittelberger, who here, in addition to his performance qualities, was represented by two pieces of contemporary choreography. Indeed, the progress from classical to contemporary ballet, with more of a focus on the latter, appears to have been Osipova’s intent in creating this program, since in large part it evolves from presenting examples of “pure” ballet to contemporary choreography.

With a couple of exceptions, I’ll consider the program in the order presented.

The evening began with excerpts from two classic ballets performed by Osipova with one or another principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, bracketing another classical ballet excerpt performed by young dancers affiliated with American Ballet Theatre.

For the evening’s opener, Osipova and Marcelino Sambé danced a pas de deux (actually, a combination of two pas de deux mashed together) from Act II of Giselle.

I remember Osipova’s ABT debut as Giselle, including how utterly amazing she looked in the role. As I recall writing at the outset of my subsequent review, “the hype was right.” But there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, and I found that last night’s excerpt suffered in comparison to that initial Giselle, as well as to subsequent ones that I saw her perform with ABT, although I suspect that the sold-out audience that came to see an established international star ballerina felt otherwise.

Natalia Osipova in “Giselle”
from Force of Nature program
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

The liquid arms are still there, just as exciting to watch as they were when I first saw her in the role. But … something else was lacking.

Osipova appeared somewhat less fragile a Giselle from my recollection of her previous performances, but that may have been a consequence of my position in the house, and it didn’t impact her performance. However, I recall that Osipova injected significant expression into her Act II Giselle, enough that I overheard some offended audience-members complaining that it was overly melodramatic given that in Act II Giselle is supposed to be a spirit incapable of emotional expression beyond whatever can be imputed through the choreography. For this excerpt, however (and maybe in her current performances), her aspect was completely emotionless. I’m in the camp that finds that although it can be overdone, something more than a bland expression is helpful. Accordingly, it was a quality I missed at this performance. And with respect to the choreography, the image sequence when Giselle approaches a kneeling Albrecht was presented differently than my prior recollection of it. When Osipova danced the role in ABT’s production, and in most other productions I’ve seen, Giselle leans on – and seemingly floats over – Albrecht’s kneeling body. Here after approaching the kneeling Albrecht she kneels on the stage floor next to him, duplicating his position. The result is far less compelling. I’m aware that many consider this more authentic – and I’ll assume it’s the way The Royal does it, but with this alteration something precious is lost.

Sambé here did excellent work as Albrecht. But I would have preferred to have seen him dance the role, in full, with the partner who appeared with him at City Center’s Balanchine Celebration several years ago, Anna Rose O’Sullivan, now, like Sambé, a Royal Ballet Principal.

After the subsequent piece (which included time for her to change her costume), Osipova reappeared looking considerably more relaxed and decidedly liberated in the bedroom pas de deux from Act I of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, this time with Royal Ballet Principal Reese Clarke. Much of that sense comes from the nature of the role itself, but it appeared that it was in large part a product of the changed choreographic emphasis to something less restrictive. [Perhaps this apparent preference for dances that require less orthodox rigidity (e.g., more of showing Osipova as a “force of nature”) explains the omission of the Don Quixote Pas de Deux and The Dying Swan, both of which had previously been scheduled to be performed on the program.]

The result, not surprisingly, was a far superior presentation. But, compared to the ABT performances of Manon that I saw in 2019 (and many such performances years before that), the passion was at a lower level, and far less authentic looking. Osipova and Clarke played at passion, but when they were supposed to display an extended, undeniably sensual kiss, their lips barely touched; it looked like they were trying to avoid anything beyond pecking at each other — which my viewing angle clearly showed. I doubt that this is how that scene is executed at The Royal (indeed, a recent Instagram post showing Sarah Lamb in the role at that point in the ballet shows that it’s not). And compared to the 2019 ABT performances I saw of Sarah Lane and Hee Seo as Manon, it didn’t look real. Consequently, as fine as Osipova’s execution was here, as with the excerpts from Giselle, something was missing.

In between these two classic ballet excerpts was the pas de deux from Flames of Paris. I suppose many of the audience expected to see Osipova dance this and were disappointed to find that, instead, it was to be performed by two dancers “in special collaboration with ABT.” The ballerina was Yeva (aka Eva) Hrytsak, a student at ABT’s JKO School; the danseur was Takumi Miyake, a member of ABT’s Studio Company. Hrytsak, a Ukranian-born budding ballerina, came across as enchanting and sweet as sugar. Though her performance wasn’t flawless, she already has a stage persona that connects with an audience. Reflecting his status with the Studio Company, Miyake is already a master of the kind of pyrotechnics usually displayed by more experienced danseurs in the role, in the process pleasantly shocking most of the audience. I look forward to seeing them both in the future – indeed, I can already picture Hrytsak as Giselle, and Miyake in Le Corsaire (assuming ABT eventually returns it to the repertory).

From that point forward the program’s focus turned to more contemporary – or at least less classical – works.

Pure, the dance that closed the first half of the program, is, to put it mildly, strange. Created in 2011 by the prolific Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, former Artistic Director of The Royal Ballet of Flanders (he was scheduled to take the same position at Le Grand Théâtre de Genève last year) to music by Tsubasa Hori and Olga Wojciechowska, it was performed here by Osipova and Kittelberger dressed in pure white – Kittelberger shirtless with billowy pajama-like bottoms and Osipova in a similarly billowy costume (though not shirtless) – who interact in an obviously sensual albeit ceremonial manner with a definite Asian sensibility. For that reason I thought early on that Pure is Cherkaoui’s revisionist Bugaku on a much smaller scale; an insight into a strange Japanese wedding ritual. But … no.

Natalia Osipova in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Pure”
from Force of Nature program
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

After a period of extended and lightly sanitized sexual activity, Kittelberger’s character leaves. He subsequently returns with a bowl of “something” that he places on the stage floor, stirs the contents with some tool, lifts some of it onto the same tool (it looked like a knife, but might have been some sort of brush), and, coated tool in hand, walks over to Osipova. He initially applies the brown-colored liquid (at first I thought it was a surrogate for dung) to Osipova’s chest (or gives the tool to her to do it, I don’t clearly recall), and she then begins to spread the thick liquid over her body. They writhe some more, he attempts to spread the dark stains defacing her body with his hands, perhaps in an effort to minimize their impact in an almost ritualistic but continuing sensual way, until it ends.

There were no program notes accompanying Pure (or any of the other pieces on the program), so anything beyond its somewhat voyeuristic ceremonial sense is conjecture. But, in hindsight, Cherkaoui’s point may be to make some judgment-free statement relating to Osipova’s character engaging in “pure” uninhibited and guiltless sensuality, who thereupon believes she’s sinned or otherwise shamed herself, and that the dark liquid spread on her reflects her diminished sense of purity (whether self-imposed or by the community); and perhaps Kittleberger’s character is attempting to minimize the seeming impurity and restore a sense of purity to their prior pure act – but that’s a distended and convoluted explanation for what appears at least on the surface to be inexplicable.

Natalia Osipova and Jason Kittelberger
in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Pure”
from Force of Nature program
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

I’ve seen a few of Cherkaoui’s dances previously, and have had a decidedly mixed opinion of them. Pure falls into the negative side of the ledger, not because the movement quality is poor, but because it’s meaning (clearly there must be an intent beyond the physical acts themselves) is so opaque. The choreography itself is overly complicated but undeniably interesting, and Osipova and Kittelberger executed well, but neither quality could rescue the piece. [A little research revealed that Pure is an extract from a larger piece that Cherkaoui choreographed for his own company in 2011. With that knowledge, perhaps the larger piece continued after this pas de deux with Osipova’s character walking naked through the town’s nooks and crannies while the townsfolk plastered her with more excrement while screaming “Shame. Shame…..” [For the uninitiated, that’s an allusion to a sequence in the HBO series, “Game of Thrones.”]

I saw Sir Frederick Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan previously (at the Joyce Theater’s Dance Festival in August, 2019), then performed by Romany Pajdak, a Royal Ballet First Soloist. Although I had no quibble with her execution, I found the piece to be far more Ashton than Duncan. Osipova’s performance reinforced my opinion.

I can’t claim to have seen any of Duncan’s performances live (or for that matter online), but I’ve seen several that capture Duncan’s airiness and spontaneity while still being grounded. Sara Mearns’s portrayal in Dances of Isadora – a Solo Tribute, a piece choreographed by Lori Bellalove, one of Duncan’s disciples / students (once removed), that I saw in a 2018 City Center Fall for Dance program, is one that did. This piece doesn’t. Ashton’s dance is far more strident and artificial-looking than the “natural movement” evidenced in Bellilove’s recreation and Mearns’s superb execution. I don’t know which interpretation more accurately reflects Duncan’s movement quality, but from everything I’ve read and seen, and notwithstanding the fine choreography and execution, I don’t think Ashton’s does. On the contrary, it seems a parody of it.

Natalia Osipova in Sir Frederick Ashton’s
“Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan”
from Force of Nature program
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Osipova deserves credit for attempting this, but here again, what she danced appeared more weighted than airy, and decidedly unnatural. Oleksandr Grynyuk’s live piano accompaniment was delivered passionately.

Another Ashton piece that I saw at the same Joyce Festival as Five Brahms Waltzes…, Dance of the Blessed Spirit, followed. A solo here performed by Clarke, this performance was superior to the one I previously saw, but only in a surface manner.

Created in 1978 for Sir Anthony Dowell, the dance is intended to show Orpheus in the Elysian Fields of Hades. The usual story is that this happened after Orpheus’s mutilation, when he and Eurydice are reunited in death, but some versions have it as the place where he meets Eurydice when he’s first allowed to enter Hades. Regardless, it’s appropriately prayerful and joyous reflecting the circumstances, and musical and lyrical reflecting Orpheus’s talent. Many consider it a masterwork.

The wrinkle here is that by 1978, when it was choreographed, Ashton reportedly finally felt comfortable choreographing for men without making them appear stereotypically powerful. Fine. But he still must be godlike, even if (thematically) stripped of his power, otherwise he’s no different from anyone else who might be wandering through Hades. He needs to be different.

Unlike the performance I saw previously, Clarke delivered the attitude and appearance of a disgraced, humbled, and powerless god, while still displaying something resembling a noble bearing. Although I continue to have difficulty reading into Ashton’s choreography the supposed underlying situation, this time at least it looked better.

Alexei Ratmansky’s Valse Triste, sandwiched between the final two pieces on the program, is also a piece I’d previously seen – curiously, at another special Osipova program, “Pure Dance,” where she performed it with David Hallberg. I raved about the piece then (it closed that program); this time, I see it slightly differently, but that doesn’t change my impression.

Choreographed on Osipova and Hallberg in 2018, “Valse Triste” means “sad waltz,” but I didn’t see the expressions of sadness as a significant component of Ratmansky’s choreography or of Osipova and Hallberg’s execution of it. Now, after seeing it a second time, the sadness is more apparent although in apparent conflict with the joyful choreographic segments and the music Sibelius created that support both emotional components. That being said, it still leaves an overwhelmingly joyous impression. Both Osipova and Clarke delivered the piece exuberantly. Instead of an annunciation of death, which reportedly is the premise for Sibelius’s composition, the music here becomes a celebration of a relationship, even if in anticipation of its end.

Natalia Osipova and Reese Clarke
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Valse Triste”
from Force of Nature program
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Kittelberger has appeared in one of Osipova’s prior solo programs (and is either her boyfriend or husband, depending on the information’s source). As a dancer, though never less than competent, he comes across as somewhat wired. Based on this program, his choreographic style is similarly wired with a European expressionistic bent (although American, for a time he worked with Cherkaoui’s own company), and it’s undoubtedly an acquired taste.

What makes Kittelberger’s choreography idiosyncratic is its fluidity amid the expressionism. It’s not constant the way a new choreographic language might attempt to be, but it’s different – more often than not the entire body moves in unexpected ways almost continuously, and from the torso and legs as much if not more than the arms – as a result it leaves a different, less angst-ridden visual taste.

The subject matter of the ballets presented here are a different matter. They’re relationship dances; clichés. Even so, Kittelberger’s approach is sufficiently different from others to avoid either piece looking hackneyed.

The world premiere, Weight of It, explores the competing demands of at least two relationships, although the identity of the relationships isn’t completely clear. The central focus, and the central source of the pain that permeates the piece, is Kittelberger’s character’s relationships with Sambé and with Osipova, but I suppose it could also be seen as addressing Osipova’s relationship with each of the men. But that’s not really important. It’s not the content; it’s the way Kittelberger puts it together.

When the curtain rises, Kittelberger and Sambé are positioned upstage standing essentially next to each other, with Osipova forward and in between them – obviously, a triangle. At various stages, however, each of the men dance with Osipova, or with each other, or all three together – each communicating discomfort at best, but mostly emotional panic, with the understanding that the existing situation cannot continue as it is.

Natalia Osipova and
(l-r) Marcelino Sambé and Jason Kittelberger in “Weight of It”
from Force of Nature program
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Particularly powerful is a series of visualized struggles between one and another or all three, in which one of the three attempts to claim one or release one from his emotional entanglement with the other. These sequences are presented at times as complex pas de trois involving body manipulation and weight-shifting, or at times as a straightforward tug of war, all with one party unable or unwilling to leave the other. For example (and my notes provide only brief references, so the sequence may not be accurate or complete), at one point Kittelberger lifts Osipova over his shoulder while concurrently pulling Sambé, displaying the strain, the weight, that dual active relationships impose; at another point Sambé lifts Osipova and swings her around, apparently in an effort to propel her away; at another point Osipova pulls Kittelberger, who is on the floor, across much of the stage. In the end, Sambé is left by himself on stage, tortured by what he’s lost, and exits the stage alone.

All this sounds overly staccato, with one image distinct from the other, but in fact it’s all seamless. Combined with the overall movement style I’ve mentioned, I found it a compelling piece of work.

More obviously displaying the movement style is Kittelberger’s Ashes, which closed the program. Ashes is another relationship dance – more accurately an end-of-relationship dance, a theme that’s been explored many times. But here the ashes of a dead relationship are shown as souls laid bare. As the piece begins, both Osipova and Kittelberger appear already weary of the relationship’s evolution almost past the point of despair; already losing hope of it continuing. There are images here that are particularly unusual. For example, a stool that Kittelberger stands on and falls off as if it’s a symbol of the relationship heights from which his character has descended; and a mat or small carpet that Osipova, after briefly exiting the stage, returns with and, later, wraps herself in and rolls toward the stage wings. Since bodies are at times wrapped in carpets rather than (or in addition to) being placed in coffins, I took this as a funeral image for the relationship’s ashes.

Again, my excerpted references cannot convey the liquid movement with which Kittelberger infuses Ashes, but it’s there.

Immediately upon the conclusion of Ashes, the audience rose to salute Osipova first, then the evening’s entire cast. The program may have been of mixed quality, but to the packed house, it was an unqualified success.