Natalia Osipova’s Pure Dance, with David Hallberg
New York City Center
New York, New York
April 3, 2019
The Leaves are Fading (pas de deux), Flutter, In Absentia, Six Years Later, Ave Maria, Valse Triste
As might be expected in an evening of dance featuring two of the finest ballet dancers of this generation, there was nothing less than stellar about their performances, those of the two other dancers with whom Osipova and Hallberg shared the program (Jonathan Goddard and Jason Kittelberger), and many of the six dances in which they appeared. It might not have been the kind of “pure dance” that the program’s title implies (not a single piece on the program lacked at least some emotional or thematic component), but to me this was a positive. As good as most of it was, however, until the evening’s final piece, something was missing – those very qualities that make Osipova and Hallberg the great dancers they are.
One of these qualities is the capacity to make ballet movement sing. Perhaps that’s why I so admired their execution of Alexei Ratmansky’s Valse Triste – and perhaps it’s also because Ratmansky choreographed this ballet on them (it premiered with the initial performance of this program, at Sadlers Wells in London on September 12, 2018). Ratmansky’s pieces often require more than one viewing to fully appreciate their complexities and wit, and maybe that will be the case with Valse Triste. But on first view, the piece is the joyful song in movement that I’d looked forward to seeing throughout the evening, and that I’ll look forward to seeing again to fully appreciate. But for now, its presence as the concluding piece on the program made the wait to get there worthwhile.
To Jean Sibelius’s eponymous 1904 composition, the piece, like the music, is a study in pleasant contradiction. “Valse Triste” means “sad waltz,” but there is nothing sad about the music. The contradictions arise from Sibelius’s subject – the arrival of death, and the furious attempts to escape its grasp that precede it. That aspect of the piece does not exist in Ratmansky’s ballet – what’s there is a delicious and enchanting duet that begins (as does the music) reflectively, but soon is overwhelmed with exuberance. Instead of an annunciation of death, the music here becomes a celebration of a relationship rescued from the depths of … something (whatever it was that prompted the initial image) to, ultimately and literally, soar. As the piece begins, Hallberg stops to think about …something, and Osipova playfully pulls him out of it. They glide through the air and across the stage, they entertain each other with solos, they inspire each other – all through silken smooth choreography that characteristically looks far simpler than it is. It’s a magnificent little piece, and it was a magnificent way to end this program.
Some of what came before it was quite good; some not; but all the dances were high caliber. For me, the finest were the two solos, In Absentia, danced by Hallberg, and Ave Maria, by Osipova.
I’ve only seen one dance choreographed by Kim Brandstrup, Jeux, a piece he created for New York City Ballet. As undeniably well-crafted as it was, I found it muddy, with images that, though interesting in a cerebral way, were inscrutable. In Absentia is a much more focused piece, and far more successful both in concept and in execution.
The extensive program note, however, almost scuttled it. There Brandstrup relates the title to two things: the way in which a dancer, having absorbed the music to a particular piece, “absents” himself from the world around him and focuses his attention on making the music flow from within. The other sense of “absence,” according to Brandstrup, relates to the way he says Hallberg reacted in the studio while creating this piece, resulting in a sense of solitude that infused the room.
I saw none of that, although I don’t doubt both happened as the dance was being prepared. Choreographed to J.S. Bach’s Chaconne in D-minor, Part 1, In Absentia is far simpler, and far less cerebral and mystical. Hallberg is seated in a chair slightly downstage right, facing a light emanating from that corner of the stage, as if hypnotized by it. But there’s a difference between being catatonic and being totally absorbed in whatever it is that’s commanding his attention, and Hallberg definitely communicated the latter. The mysterious, somehow pervasive beam of light serves another function – emanating from below and in front of Hallberg, it casts his huge shadow against the back stage scrim (lighting design by Jean Kalman). The image of a brooding Hallberg literally overshadowed by the echo of a brooding Hallberg is emblematic of the power that this “force” has over him, and the Herculean effort it might take, in his mind, to relieve himself of this shadowy burden.
Following this initial period of blank-faced concentration, Hallberg lifts himself from the chair, and, still possessed by that dominating “force,” responds to it in movement, as if, having been presented with some scenario, he was – seemingly mindlessly – working through whatever the experience was. Another way to see it, equally valid I think, is that he was exploring impulses of his own that no longer existed, having been subsumed by the spell that this force had over him. Either way, Hallberg’s performance as a man who isn’t there, but is, is as magnificent in its own way as was his portrayal of the tormented, emotionally imprisoned victim of totalitarian excess, with the unseen image of Stalin looming over his shoulder, in Ratmansky’s Chamber Symphony, from his Shostakovich Trilogy. [And how appropriate it would have been for American Ballet Theatre to have returned this masterpiece to their repertory this coming Met 2019 season.]
In the end, unable to escape the force that has captured him (or having worked through whatever moribund inclinations he may have had), Hallberg returns to his chair, and to staring at that light – which now clearly is emanating from some screen (either television or a computer monitor) to which he has yielded his mind and body.
So, if it’s not sufficiently apparent, In Absentia is “about” a person who absents himself from community, a zombie-ish prisoner of a a different sort of totalitarianism. In someone else’s hands, this piece might have been as commonplace as the dance’s subject would lead one to believe. But in Hallberg’s, it cut like a knife.
To balance Hallberg’s solo, Osipova danced one of her own: Ave Maria, choreographed by Yuka Oishi. I’m not familiar with Oishi’s work, but this solo was highly accomplished, although with limited movement variety. That being said, it relied more on Osipova’s infusion of character than on steps.
The dance opens with Osipova, in a simple but stunning white dress (costume design by Stewart J. Charlesworth), with her back to the audience. As she begins to move to the strains of Schubert’s composition, she, uncharacteristically, looks weighted, as if burdened, or broken. Oishi stresses in a program note that the piece is not religious, but about a woman’s “strength of love and sensibility.” I disagree. While there’s certainly evidence of strength, it’s the strength to cope, to survive, and to overcome adversity. She’s not lamenting (this is not akin to Martha Graham’s Lamentation); she’s overcoming. And a religious element is produced not just by the nature of the music, but in images of Osipova reaching upward as if in prayer, even if it’s praying only to some unknown force, and for more strength. It’s a mystical quality that infuses the dance, which has an Asian, maybe Indian, feel. With an included sense of ritual, Ave Maria brings to my mind’s eye a solo that Nikiya might have danced in La Bayadere. That being said, Osipova makes the most of the limited movement, seething with passionate resolve to overcome whatever it is that is beating her down, and saving it from being an overly saccharine tribute to a woman’s inner strength.
The two contemporary dances had moments, but didn’t really gel. Flutter is choreographed by Ivan Perez to music by Nico Muhly (“Mothertongue: 1. Archive, II. Shower, IV. Monster”), a composition comprised of a soundscape of women’s voices speaking the numbers of addresses where Muhly had lived. Some of it sounds angelic, but most of it comes across as just a very strange, and affected, take on Julio Iglesias’s “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.”
Flutter is almost as strange. Osipova and Goddard are crazy for each other – their fluttering arms and legs seeming to propel them to more fluttering arms and legs. Every once in awhile, the couple retreat upstage to the back scrim, but do not disappear in the darkness (the program note says they do; they don’t). They just retreat as if regrouping, and then return to center stage. And every once in awhile, Osipova will be drawn toward the front of the stage, looking down briefly at where the orchestra pit might be, looking increasingly nervous about what’s there.
As this dance progresses, the significance, and the time devoted to, Osipova’s peering into this abyss of sorts and being impacted by it increases, until it almost destroys the relationship – but it doesn’t. What purpose does this serve? Perez doesn’t say in the program note, but the only explanation that makes sense is that the abyss is what Osipova sees when she looks into an uncertain future. I suppose, as visual metaphors go, it’s as good as any, but between the fluttery choreography, the meaningless retreats upstage, and the growing significance of this abyss, it all borders on the sophomoric.
Osipova and Goddard make the most of the fluttering choreography (as I watched, I thought of a Dancing With the Stars “quick step,” zapped with a continuing electric charge that made the dancers’ limbs flail uncontrollably), but as good as their execution was, nothing could really save this piece.
Six Years Later is better, but it’s a close call. This dance is about is a different kind of “abyss” – the abyss of memory, and the persistence of it, real or imagined. Its narrative of sorts, according to the program note, is a casual encounter, which may or may not have been so casual, and which spawns memories of presumed past encounters, which may have happened, or maybe didn’t, or maybe followed the opening encounter, or maybe happened many times. The piece is filled with passion, artificial excuses for disagreements, break ups, reunions, passion, artificial reasons for disagreements … you get the idea. It also featured, choreographically, a lot of head-pulling and manipulating, which beyond the obvious sensation of the characters playing with each other’s heads, made me uncomfortable.
What saves the dance is the superb job that Osipova and Kittelberger do in investing their characters with a touch of humanity despite the contrived silliness of what they’re doing. Don’t misinterpret that – this kind of situation – memories built on memories that get rekindled or re-remembered repeatedly – is not an unusual phenomenon. It awaits a more intelligent rendering than choreographer Roy Assaf gave it. But Six Years Later has the music (Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata), and more of a purpose than a generalized fear of some unknown abyss. And Kittelberger, who I last saw in another Osipova program (with Sergei Polunin) in 2016 at City Center, in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Qutb, and who I described then as being very good as somewhat of a stone in motion, here displayed considerable emotional involvement – but it was undone by the choreographic artificiality.
This brings me all the way back to the program’s opening piece: to me, the evening’s one major disappointment. Antony Tudor’s The Leaves are Fading is one of my favorite ballets. From the first time I saw it, it struck a chord – and not just because I saw it at its premiere performance. It was the subject of my first review (not a formal one; an assignment for a class I was taking at the New School). I remember everything about it vividly – including most memorably the central pas de deux with Gelsey Kirkland and Jonas Kage. Somehow, it made my heart soar and melt and explode at the same time. I’ve seen it many times since, including danced by Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, who staged this presentation and who were in the audience for this opening night, and I have very strong feelings about it.
Taking this pas de deux out of context exemplifies why I react negatively to excerpts from larger pieces that are presented out of context. It may be a scene apart, but it’s a part of a whole, without which it becomes a simple, lovely pas de deux without a reason for being. In context, within a woman’s autumnal memories, it’s a reimagining of what it was like to be young and in love. Several smaller duets precede it, each very nice but each somewhat surface, like a summer romance. And then the Kirkland / Kage duet became the focus, beginning like the others, but gradually becoming something considerably more. The change in character, all within the context of a woman’s memory, from what may have been a summer fling to the couple’s recognition that this love was going to last and endure, is in Antonin Dvorak’s skillfully assembled music and Tudor’s choreography, and epitomizes why Tudor is the master of being able to see inside a character’s head and make them not just real, but compelling. And, of course, it requires performances capable of expressing those emotions primarily through the choreography, but also through the soul – with a minimum of emoting. Kirkland had it with Kage and later with Ivan Nagy, as did Amanda McKerrow, who performed it together with John Gardner, both of whom staged this performance. It’s soul.
But that soul, that connection, was absent from Osipova and Hallberg’s performance. Their execution was first rate, but it was steps. The emotional growth, the recognition and the communication that this relationship was different from the others, wasn’t there. It wasn’t their fault – it couldn’t have been communicated as an excerpt. It left me appreciating their performances, but feeling unmoved.
Which returns me, now, to the end, and the beginning. Had I not seen the relationship built between Osipova and Hallberg during the ballet’s closing piece, Ratmansky’s Valse Triste, I might have wondered about the quality of their reportedly legendary relationship (despite the undeniable quality of their Giselle with ABT a couple of years ago). I still doubt that theirs is anything close to the stage relationship between Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes, but at the end of Valse Triste, when Hallberg lifts Osipova horizontally overhead, her body facing the sky, arms and legs extended upward, both joyously acting as one, this gave me some hope that they will return, together, in a vehicle that can more suitably reveal the character of their stage relationship.