Sunday, October 14, 2012

A firebird as a swan

It's been noted everywhere, since Natalia Osipova hit town the other day, that the Russian prima ballerina assoluta-in-the-making isn't necessarily a natural Odette. She's more firebird than swan, setting the place so much alight as Odile in Act III that it's no surprise everything goes up in smoke at the end. On the other hand, why should Odette be a moaning minnie? A swan is strong, fierce and near-supernatural, a favourite symbol of mythical purity and grace, the creature that leads Lohengrin and seduces Zeus. And, incidentally, a swan can break a man's arm.


Osipova's swan is Odette with a modern twist: fabulously musical, she goes into slow motion with those wonderful ritardando spins, or chooses an arabesque angle all her own, her Bolshoi training's super-extension a vivid contrast with the expert ensemble but contained style of the Royal Ballet corps. We may want to see her leap, but she wants to act - and for good reason. Her Odette is slow to trust yet quick to love, which makes her betrayal all the more tragic; and Osipova gives us an inspired moment before she throws herself into the lake that is the instant Odette cracks. Visibly, before she embarks on her final mime, she realises she can take no more: now her mind is made up and nothing will stop her. Acosta's Siegfried follows her, of course. But it is Rothbart's death that we see on stage, and the ferociously marvellous Gary Avis seems to drown in a turbulent lake of vengeful swans. We experience our heroine and hero's last moments vicariously through his.

Here is Anthony Dowell coaching Marianela Nunez, Thiago Soares and Christopher Saunders in the climactic pas de trois - from the Royal Ballet Live webcast last April. (I love how the pianist gets totally carried away - and the thing that Dowell describes as "the Judy Garland moment"...)



Back to Osipova & Acosta: it was the Black Swan pas de deux that sent everyone nuts, and with good reason. Osipova works the audience with the instinct for timing, and virtuoso teasingness, of a prize comedy actress, though her interpretation is certainly not about laughs. In her solo, she goes into a phenomenal series of turns and extensions with that trademark slow control; then seems about to do it again on the other side, until, with a glance into the auditorium, seems to say "nah, maybe not...". The smile she flashes at the conclusion would have set the house aflame even if the sequence of fouettes - and whatever else it was that she did in those famous spins, which were doubles with knobs on - had not already done so. Acosta's whirls themselves drew a loud whoop of joy from somewhere in the stalls in mid flow: like Papageno, I think he could have won a few auditorium marriage proposals given the chance. He is a dancer who, like Dowell, can own the stage with the move of one arm and can hover in the air for what feels like a whole minute when allowed, in the Black Swan finale, to leap. If only they would bring back Siegfried's Ashton solo in Act I...

Speaking of which, it hasn't escaped any critic's notice that this production is a wee bit past its sell-by date. The lurid designs, for a start. The schlock-Gothic Act III is more Rocky Horror Show than royal ball. Rothbart looks, as owl, like a cross between Rod Stewart and, unfortunately, Jimmy Savile (what has Rothbart been doing to his troop of bewitched maidens anyway?), and later, in the ballroom, more like George Michael on a really bad day. However powerful Gary Avis's acting - and no character dancer could be more so - it's hard to take Rothbart seriously in this get-up.

But though it's the designs that cause the most complaint, I have to add my usual bug-bear about the limited benefits of supposed "authenticity". Going back to the original text as far as possible means that we lose all the old RB production's gorgeous Frederick Ashton contributions (except the Neapolitan Dance, which would probably cause a balletomanes' riot if chopped). In Act I, it's not only Siegfred's solo that I miss, but also the old Ashton waltz. David Bintley's choreography for the waltz, apparently based on an original-version 'Dance of the Stools' - the wooden sort, I hasten to add - is irritating, fussy and chaotic and the maypole adds nothing at all except clutter. Meanwhile Act IV is missing some of my favourite music - the clarinet-led, Russian folksongish lament - jettisoned in favour of a pretty but interminable waltz, when there are waltzes galore elsewhere already. Also, Ashton's Act IV made spectacular use of possibly the most dramatic piece in the whole score, which does not come into this version at all. The current staging does win on drama in Act IV - but at a price.

But hey. We weren't there for the production, but for Osipova - and it was her night all right. I was sitting next to a dance critic of long experience and some renown who remarked that bringing in a star like Osipova is a move that could inspire the whole company, showing them all what's really possible. And going home, I bumped into Brian, My Ballet Teacher, who was in ecstasies, saying that Osipova had delivered moments in the role as he had never seen them done before. Brian has lived and breathed classical ballet all his life - he used to dance leading roles with London Festival Ballet and his classes are gloriously poetic and Vaganova-inspired - and he knows what he's talking about.

The orchestra, under Boris Gruzhin, was on mostly excellent form - what a treat to hear such luxury Tchaikovsky - and it's hard to imagine the violin solos played more wonderfully than they are by concertmaster Vasko Vassilev, whose deep amethyst tone is now an essential part of Royal Ballet Tchaikovsky classics as a brand. Please, Kevin O'Hare, couldn't we have him go on stage for a curtain call?

The Mikhailovsky Ballet - of which Osipova and her usual partner/husband, the utterly incredible Ivan Vasiliev, are members - is coming to Britain in the spring. Doing, among other things, Swan Lake. If the First Couple of Dance are there, buy, beg or steal a ticket.