Thursday, March 28, 2013

"Vasipova" hits London



Sometimes you feel lucky to be around to see certain people do certain things. Since starting this blog nine years ago, I've been aware of this frequently: it's a privilege to chart the coming-of-age of musicians like Benjamin Grosvenor and Daniil Trifonov, the birth of operas like Written on Skin and The Minotaur, the zooming to stardom of Jonas Kaufmann, Joseph Calleja and Joyce DiDonato. And I've been fortunate, over the decades since being a balletomane kid, to see many, many great dancers.

Still, the other night I had the distinct impression that if there's a ballet biscuit to take, Natalia Ospiova and Ivan Vasiliev have walked away with it - assuming their feet touch the ground long enough to actually walk anywhere.

The Russian ballet couple sometimes known to fans collectively as "Vasipova" are in London at the moment with their home company, the Mikhailovsky Ballet from St Petersburg, which they joined after a dramatic exit from the Bolshoi a couple of years ago. The Mikhailovsky may be less well-known here, yet has a distinguished history, its theatre going back over 100 years and the ballet company for around 80; it is currently under the direction of Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato. To judge from their Giselle at the London Coliseum the other night, perhaps the issue now is that their two top stars simply eclipse the rest, in the syndrome of "the best is the enemy of the vaguely OK".

The production is bright, pretty, traditional, often finely wrought in terms of drama: clear mime and some impressive detail: eg, Giselle's mother doesn't know whose wine to pour first, the princess's or her press secretary's - as a peasant she is used to pouring first for the man. A few clunky things like noisy spook-flames and a manically active tree in the second half were probably opening-night glitches, and the orchestra was reasonably impressive, but for some dodgy intonation in the big viola solo. But above all it's a vehicle for Natalia and Ivan...whom, incidentally, I went to meet on Saturday afternoon. (Oh yes, I did. And they are adorable. More soon.)

Osipova is nothing less than mesmerising. It's not just her extreme lightness, focus and flexibility that astounds - every jump seems to take place in slow motion, for instance, and a series of backward-shifting sautes in one Act II solo had the audience holding its collective breath in near disbelief. What really makes the difference is her absorption in the drama. Every move serves the story and the character, in the same way that Verdi only employs virtuoso coloratura to serve his text. There's a shudder of premonition in "he loves me not"; the mad scene is both a devastating disintegration and a desperately convincing heart attack; and Vasiliev as Albrecht delivers a final coup-de-grace to the audience with the violence of his fury when accused by Hilarion.

Act II found Ospiova's supremely ghostly Giselle, whirling around on the spot when initiated, perhaps free at last to dance as she wants, as her human heart had prevented in life; and Albrecht, forced to dance himself almost into a grave of his own, is being put through what she had to experience - a lesson in ultimate empathy. The silence of ballet, the symbolism of the lilies, becomes part and parcel of the ghostliness - can the ghost-Giselle speak to the living Albrecht her Wili sisters have entrapped? The whole means of communication has transformed since Act I.

Strange how different Osipova and Vasiliev are, yet their partnership works like a jet engine. Vasiliev's presence is a bolt of pure kinetic energy that can flatten you, while Osipova's feet work like a hypnotist's wheel. Act II resembled watching the sun dance with the moon. Both simply defy gravity - cliche, yeah, I know, but there's no trampoline in the Coli stage. And the chemistry between them is unbroken and unmistakeable. If they're in different parts of the space, though, you can go cross-eyed trying to work out which of them to watch first.

Some critics seem perturbed by the size of Vasiliev's leg muscles. Since he can do THAT (right), I personally wouldn't grumble.

They're here until 7 April. Don't miss the chance to see them.