Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev are two of the biggest names in classical ballet. After breaking off from the Bolshoi to join the American Ballet Theater and, in Osipova’s case, the Royal Ballet as well, they’ve now unveiled a contemporary program co-sponsored by Ardani Artists and Segerstrom Center For the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA. With pieces by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Ohad Naharin, and Arthur Pita, the evening’s billing set expectations higher than high. Taken altogether, Friday night’s performances at SCFTA didn’t disappoint, but no single work on the program stood strongly on its own.
Cherkaoui’s Mercy set out to describe compassion, the “pathway from violence to tenderness.” It was the only work en pointe, and it was minutes before I realized Osipova was wearing any shoes at all, which I took as proof of her prowess in ballet. To staccato sounds provided live by the Los Angeles Concert of Viols, the pair repeated a series of mechanical movements indicating a fight, Vasiliev throwing punches and Osipova taking their blow. Each sound was exactly accompanied by a movement, which was gratifying at first but the surprise quickly wore off and it became rote. At the end of the first section, Osipova gripped Vasiliev’s neck, demonstrating that she hadn’t given up yet. Following this was a solo for Vasiliev that was as unconstrained as the first section was constrained; the movements looked floppy, unfocused, and even clumsy for such an acclaimed, upright dancer. Perhaps this was the intention, that without someone to harm or relate to onstage, Vasiliev’s character lacked purpose. At any rate, only the acrobatic tricks interspersed within, and an off-kilter turning jump that rotated at least 450 degrees in midair, seemed comfortable territory for Vasiliev.
The piece continued in this way, with very organized musical sections (including one song performed by Indian singer Arun Dravid) and tricks that impressed within an otherwise slowly moving, undynamic structure. Its saving grace was Osipova’s dark, intense glare, implying there was more to come. Parts in which Osipova manipulated a floor-bound Vasiliev with her foot, and Vasiliev later guided Osipova with his hand, leaving separation between them like opposing magnets, came off as mere improvisational studies. When Osipova folded from a prone position into a nearly 90-degree backbend, I realized further that the pair of bodies onstage were, for the most part, underutilized in Mercy.
The spark began to light in Naharin’s piece, which he’d developed with the dancers just weeks before the show, in Tel Aviv. It was called PASSO after an existing piece, PassoMezzo, from which he had initially planned to work, and atmospheric music by the British electronic duo Autechre preceded a traditional version of Greensleeves. Again, Osipova was able to communicate how intensely she felt each movement, and how important each sensation was, for her, to the work’s greater meaning. And again, Vasiliev seemed like an afterthought as he followed her around the stage, walking and occasionally taking a pose from her choreography. The phrases had a vigor and dynamic that were a welcome change from the softness of the first, but they were expectedly “Ohad-y”–high-kneed passees with twisted torsos and hands hovering experimentally at the corner of their loose shirts, splayed fourths with thrown backbends instantaneously gathered back into hunched crouches.
I felt relief when the music lifted into the traditional English music and a narrative began to unfold; the folk dance made use of themes that had seemed just arbitrary before. When a walking pattern gave way to Osipova leaping suddenly into Vasiliev’s arms, the audience collectively sighed. The tidy, impeccably composed piece continued on and finally returned to this image, gratifyingly so.
The program’s final and most haunting work, FACADA, came from the Portuguese choreographer, Arthur Pita. Based on the larger work, God’s Garden, a theatrical reinterpretation of The Prodigal Son this duet introduced a bride (Osipova), groom (Vasiliev), and a Lady in Black performed by actor Gay Storm, ostensibly the mother of the bride. She was armed with a knife, which doubled as the mirror she used to apply her dark lipstick. I thought of Chekhov and his fateful remark about the pistol. Frank Moon played the work’s score, which included traditional Portuguese fado, from upstage right. There were preparations for a wedding; my fiance and I, who are getting married in two weeks, could relate. The bride stepped in a long diagonal toward her waiting groom. They exchanged sidelong glances. With excellent comedic timing, he fled through the audience, screaming. I squirmed a little. My fiance laughed out loud.
Indeed, misfortune gave way to humor, giving way to true tragedy at last: the work’s conclusion took place atop Vasiliev’s grave, which was represented by a low, black table the women had pulled over his body after Osipova strangled him in a falsely pacifying embrace. In the stomping, stormy solo she danced over his head, it seemed that she’d finally taken the revenge–and reached the full performative power she possessed–that the program’s opening had unintentionally left the audience wanting. I’m not sure whether it was the program’s seamlessness or seeing the two dancers in each work that connected their narratives in my mind, but in the end, the stage wasn’t big enough for the both of them.