On Friday, April 5th, I attended Natalia Osipova’s “Pure Dance” program with David Hallberg at City Center. Long recognized as one of the world’s preeminent ballet talents, Osipova is one of very few ballerinas with the clout to commission her own evening of solos and duets from disparate choreographers. She danced in five of the six pieces presented; the sixth was a solo for Hallberg. Overall, I found the program a clear reflection of the present-day ballet landscape, with multiple attempts to integrate more contemporary movement into classical ballet technique (to varying degrees of effectiveness), and an educational preview of Osipova and Hallberg themselves, neither of whom I’ve seen perform with any regularity over the years. (I don’t think I had seen Natalia before at all!) There was just one piece that moved me deeply – Roy Assaf’s “Six Years Later,” which, alone, was well worth the ticket.
Before the show began, I was excited to be joined not only by my good friend/Pod de Deux co-host/fellow dance nerd, but also by two non-dancer friends who harbor a refreshing curiosity about dance. Throughout the show, I was reminded of how much fun it is to hear the perspectives of people who haven’t been steeped in dance throughout their lives – sadly few and far between in any concert dance audience. One thing that struck me in particular is how much more open non-dancers can be to seeking and perceiving narrative elements in abstract pieces. Despite my own resistance to what I perceive as the trendiness of abstraction, I realized that I’m hesitant to create my own narratives when watching an abstract piece. It almost feels like I’m not allowed to project structure or story where it might not be intended, and I’m afraid to risk misinterpreting the all-hallowed choreographic intent (however unclear that intent may be). It wasn’t until I heard my companions spinning creative theories about what we had just watched – particularly in the dark, twerky “Flutter” by Iván Pérez – that I realized how bound I’ve become to my own internalized sense of the expectations of a dance viewer. That said, if I don’t feel drawn into a piece, it also doesn’t really occur to me to pay close attention or theorize about what meaning or narrative might present itself; I tend to tune it out or automatically switch into a more superficial viewing mode. I’ll have to keep bringing non-dancers with me to shows so I can refresh my own eyes through their more curious (and decidedly less judgmental) ones.
The evening opened with “The Leaves are Fading,” an Osipova/Hallberg duet by Antony Tudor that originally premiered in 1975. The subtly water-colored costumes were pretty. Osipova’s technique was characteristically impeccable. But the piece itself felt like a dime a dozen – a dull attempt at contemporary ballet in which the dancers often looked awkward breaking with classical technique. One factor that consistently irks me about pieces like this is the way the dancers always seem to wind up holding their wrists and hands –somewhere between pure ballet (who can help all those years of training?) and, perhaps in the moments when they remember they are supposed to be looking less ballet, downright limp…always, therefore, a reminder that we are watching ballerinas step deliberately outside their comfort zone. The image of Hallberg’s weird turned-in pirouettes also sticks in my mind as a particularly ugly recurring riff. Surely, I remember thinking at the time, any dancer chosen to share the bill with Osipova (especially with Hallberg’s own reputation preceding him) is better than this. Indeed, Hallberg’s solo, “In Absentia” by Kim Brandstrup (the only other piece I really enjoyed aside from Assaf’s stunning work), reassured me of Hallberg’s undeniable skill, grace and lanky beauty.
The second piece, “Flutter,” by Iván Pérez, was more interesting in a sense but, I felt, too deliberately so. Everything about the piece seemed to be trying too hard, from the moment it opened on Nico Muhly’s “Mothertongue” (described as “a soundscape of female voices…formed by digits extracted from addresses where Nico had lived”), to the dancers’ constant twitching and trembling (like drug addicts without their fix, as one of my non-dancer companions observed). They entwined and separated and moved through aerials that, whether I had seen them before or not, did little to compel me. I just felt that I had seen the same stylistic trope, or too many too-similar attempts at innovation, too many times before. Much of Pérez’s other work is fluid, visceral, gorgeous and commanding; perhaps this one would have been better set on a different pair. Or perhaps it, too, just didn’t work for me for reasons I can never know. Taste will always be a mystery.
The third piece before intermission was the aforementioned Hallberg solo, “In Absentia.” I found it quietly beautiful and was relieved to be impressed by Hallberg’s skill. He appeared to alternate between sitting in front of a tv and restlessly arising to move around the “room” (a studio apartment?), reflective and alone. The piece indeed embodied the sense of absence the title denotes but not, to me, in a way that felt sad, lonely or alienating so much as pensive, personal and, to borrow a word from Brandstrup’s program notes, perhaps a little uncanny.
Throughout Act I, I felt that Osipova, though technically brilliant, was lacking in the qualities that truly captivate me. Attempting to explain it to my companions, I described a three-tiered pyramid. Tier 1 is technique. And let’s be clear: it takes a rare and incredible talent to master ballet technique. After technical mastery comes tier 2: the subtle use of port de bras, musicality, eyeline, timing and other very detailed physical factors to convey clear emotional cues to an audience. But only in tier 3 do you find the best of the best – the dancers who take your breath away, who completely embody the emotion of the movement or the soul of a character, who create a sense of profundity out of thin air. I’ve noticed in the past that female ballerinas in “tier 3” are uniquely able to carry the role of a classic balletic heroine, which always demands a delicate balance of vulnerability and strength. Still, like taste itself, tier 3 is a real mystery. Trying to figure out exactly what it is about these dancers, their movement, their style, that holds you so captive is an exercise in futility. That said, the quality can be fleeting; I think many dancers who transcend to that tier 3 pinnacle in their youth unfortunately lose some of the magic as they grow older and more accustomed to their roles and routines. It reminds me of a passage I’ve probably quoted too many times now, in various other contexts, from the incomparable genius Edith Wharton:
“…a subtle change had passed over the quality of [Lily’s] beauty. Then it had had a transparency through which the fluctuations of the spirit were sometimes tragically visible; now its impenetrable surface suggested a process of crystallization which had fused her whole being into one hard brilliant substance. The change had struck Mrs. Fisher as a rejuvenation: to Selden it seemed like that moment of pause and arrest when the warm fluidity of youth is chilled into its final shape.” (House of Mirth)
During Act I, I couldn’t help but wonder if Osipova was an example of this kind of theoretical slippage in my theoretical hierarchy. Though far enough from retirement, at 32, she already has a long and storied career behind her; in ballet-years, she’s getting on.
The first piece after intermission, Roy Assaf’s “Six Years Later,” was stunning proof of the difference that both choreography and chemistry can make. My neat theoretical tier assignment flew out the window as Osipova and a new duet partner, Jason Kittelberger, held me spellbound. One of the most intriguing motifs of the piece was the motion of one dancer covering the other’s face with their hand, and then sometimes pushing them or pulling them by the face – at times combative or rough, at times sensual and intimate. The rather cryptic program notes reference the transport between past and present, glimpses of an uncertain past, assumptions confirmed and shattered… To me, the piece unfolded as a clear, narrative domestic drama. It opened on an immediately-captivating Osipova and Kittelberger, locked in a drudgerous routine that morphed into a stubborn power struggle as the first few notes of “Moonlight Sonata” repeated, over and over and over, before eventually continuing into the well-known piece in a deftly-executed reveal. The duo’s movement transitioned gradually into something softer, deeper and more vulnerable… Only to land in open conflict when Kittelberger’s attention waned and a controlling, vengeful passion bubbled up in Osipova. But then, the skies cleared, the music took a sudden turn – to a 60s pop track no less! (Marmalade’s “Reflections on My Life”) – and the couple transitioned once again; they became shy and sheepish, their affection building to a positively giddy high like two teenagers in love. With no change in costumes nor set, I could practically see them skipping through a sunlit field. I, of course, found myself hoping this was the end – a happy ending for our couple, who had had only to work their way through the darkness and hardship to reap the sunny reward at the end of the tunnel! But then Marmalade ended, the mood grew more somber, and I realized how foolish I had been to harbor hopes for a fairytale. That incongruous field-skipping poppery was incongruous because we weren’t watching a fairytale. We were watching life – as it unfolded between two people. The rest of the piece wove its way toward what I felt at the time (if I remember correctly) was a sort of resting place between the darkness and the light; the couple seemed to find a deeper, quieter peace together. I’m writing this later than I’d like and my memories are fuzzy, but I think this final phase of the piece was set to one of those incomparably beautiful operatic scores that induces immediate teary-eyed wistfulness. Interestingly, despite or even alongside my own projection of linearity (/sense of an “end” at all), I walked away with the message that there is no resting place in a relationship – only unending variation along the way. Maybe the piece itself brought the viewer to a sense of conclusion, as the best art often must, while its overall idea was open-ended. Or maybe the intellectual content told us there was no conclusion, while the emotional arc deposited us in a place of reassurance – that it’s okay not to have a conclusion; we can find peace within endless change.
The last two pieces were, again, just okay. The final piece, another Osipova-Hallberg duet, this time by the choreographic darling Alexei Ratmansky, I honestly don’t remember. The 5th was Osipova’s solo to Ave Maria. It’s easy to fool an audience into feeling something when you’re draped in the most exultant piece of music ever written, harder (or should it be?) to actually bring your movement to the level of the score. As a matter of pure stylistic preference, I didn’t love the way Yuka Oishi’s choreography shortened rather than expanded some movements and phrases, in counterintuitive interplay with the music. And sadly, I felt that Osipova, absent the thrilling magic of her chemistry with Kitteleberger, was back to “tier 2,” falling just short of invoking an authentic emotional resonance. “Six Years Later” made it clear that Osipova is in full possession of “tier 3” ability; Ave Maria (and the rest of the program) did not. Maybe this simply reflects where she is in her life; recent insta pics would definitely suggest she and Kittelberger are feeling inspired by one another well beyond the stage. 😉 I’ll definitely be following them as a duo, and I’ll be curious to see how Osipova continues to evolve over time.
While I might not have loved every piece, I’m also eager to follow all of the choreographers who were presented in the show. Experimentation with form is inherently trial and error; some trials will succeed, and others will fail. (And that’s just to my taste.) If I took any overarching thought away from this performance (or maybe just from my reflections on it), it’s that nothing is fixed. Talent, taste, feeling, resonance and life itself are in a constant state of flux. At best, I guess we can take comfort that where we have fallen short today, we might have a chance to do better tomorrow.