Thursday, March 28, 2013
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.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
My ultimate night off is a trip to the ballet. Yesterday I treated myself to a spot close to the front at the Coliseum to see Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, the young supernovas of the Bolshoi Ballet, in Sir Frederick Ashton's Romeo and Juliet. I sat near enough to hear Osipova breathe and to watch the rippling of Vasiliev's impressive leg muscles.
I've always been curious about this ballet. Ashton is a big favourite and this is one of his that I've never seen before, since it's not often done in London. It was created for the Royal Danish Ballet and apparently was bequeathed in Ashton's will to the dancer and director Peter Schaufuss, whose company was responsible for its nine-performance visit.
Here in the Big Smoke we're steeped in the Kenneth MacMillan version, and it's hard to forget about it while watching this very different, exceedingly condensed account. But while MacMillan's is a grand-scale company piece, full of dazzling solo spots and set pieces for the corps de ballet, Ashton extracts the essence of Shakespeare's poetry and focuses on nothing else - as if Romeo and Juliet has become a Shakespeare sonnet. The corps - or the few couples representing it - have little to do; the ballroom scene looks more like a preamble to a family dinner party; and the lovers are dead at 9.30pm, by which time (if I remember rightly) Covent Garden has usually just killed off Tybalt. Having so said, I've no idea whether or not this was precisely Ashton's original or if it has been further truncated for this run (other reviewers have suggested so).
Osipova and Vasiliev aren't natural Ashtonians, and the surrounding Danes proved interesting company in every sense: while it seemed that the Bolshoi pair were making a great effort to rein in their natural athleticism and immense technical prowess to suit Ashton's poetic restraint, the bouncy and lyrical Danes let rip. Alban Lendorf of the Royal Danish Ballet brought the house down as Mercutio: as in Shakespeare, it's more of a character role than the moony Romeo, and Lendorf's acting ability had the chance to exceed that of his star colleague. Dancing next to Vasiliev in purely technical terms must be a huge challenge, too, and Lendorf met it at literally every turn. Showpieces for Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio found Vasiliev giving us those glorious leaps and his magically controlled spins that flower into slow motion at the end, but Lendorf's multiple whirls (wonderfully on-the-spot) would put many Odiles to shame; and Robin Bernardet as Benvolio offered seriously dazzling footwork.
Their Tybalt, Johan Christensen, was a renegade Goth type, a problem child with a major anger management problem; slightly hard to believe in Lady Capulet's passion for him, but his sword fights are magnetic and that roll down the steps when Romeo kills him must be jolly painful. Super support, too, from Schaufuss himself as Friar Laurence; and his daughter, Tara, had a lively and tender solo spot as Mercutio's girlfriend.
But it was Osipova's show. She's an astounding dance actress, growing before our eyes from teasing child to awakening woman, from furious teenager to desperate and decisive suicide, making every high-set developee and every last pas de bourree into an expression of character. At times I nearly feared for Vasiliev, since his Juliet outacted him and his Mercutio nearly stole his limelight.
On balance, though (pun unintended), I don't think he needs to worry. What a gorgeous pair they are, these two real-life lovers: magnetic, flexible, passionate, all-giving artists in the grand sense of which the Bolshoi tradition has never lost sight, and imbued with a charisma that makes it physically impossible to glance away while they're on stage. Never mind the production's shortcomings in terms of lighting/sets/costumes: this was a night to remember.
More previews from the Peter Schaufuss Ballet's run-up to the run here: