Review: Natalia Osipova - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui / Russell Maliphant / Arthur Pita - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 29 June - 3 July 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 1 July 2016

Natalia Osipova & Sergei Polunin in 'Run Mary Run'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Qutb / Silent Echo / Run Mary Run

Performance reviewed: 30 June

A programme of new work, made by three of today’s most sought-after choreographers and created on two of the most popular dancers of recent years, was bound to cause a stir. It has been a much-anticipated highlight of the Sadler’s Wells season since Natalia Osipova and her partner, Sergei Polunin, shyly announced their new initiative at a press conference, appropriately on the morning of November 5th, last year. Fireworks were promised in more ways than one and this show has rightly been the hot dance ticket of the summer.

At the press launch, Polunin belied his (largely unjustified) bad boy of ballet image, to play second fiddle to Osipova, his involvement not extending much beyond acting as her interpreter! And, he has continued this supporting role into the performance itself, for which Osipova is exclusively billed as the star. She appears in all three works: the first a trio by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, enigmatically entitled Qutb, with Osipova appearing alongside Jason Kittelberger and James O’Hara; and the latter pair, both duets for her to dance alongside Polunin.

More than anything, the programme highlights the desire of these extraordinary dancers – both still in their twenties – to expand their horizons. In every way, not least in the same choice of choreographers, Osipova is following the footsteps of Sylvie Guillem by exploring the boundaries of neoclassical and contemporary dance forms; but, Osipova’s expansive quest is coming a decade or more earlier in her career.

Such excellence in both creativity and performance was bound to have many gorgeous moments of movement but if the choreography by Cherkaoui and Maliphant appeared beautiful, it was also familiar. Cherkaoui’s Qutb added little to expand the memories inspired by either his past repertoire or enriched the diversity of inspirations fuelled by contemporary dance choreography in recent years; Maliphant’s Silent Echo was well-named since it reflected or repeated (especially in early sequences) the imagery of soft, twirling torsion as two bodies revolved with varying intensity in Michael Hulls’ striking tubes and circles of light.

Qutb is an Arabic word, with many meanings. It could simply refer to an axis or pivot, or it can have an astronomical connotation denoting celestial movement. In Sufism it has a spiritual relevance, standing for the perfect person: a spiritual leader; the emissary of God, or Allah. Each of these diverse meanings appears to have a relevance to Cherkaoui’s thematic intentions. Celestial references are clear in the planetary image on the backdrop, which we first encounter undergoing an eclipse (as a dark, smaller sphere crosses in front of it) and then we see surrounded by an orange ring of fire. An axis comes into play with the planet reflected in a replica floor painting (by Anthony Fleming) and the strong visual impact of the work is further testament to the outstanding set and lighting designs of Fabiana Piccioli.

The most compelling aspect of Cherkaoui’s choreography came in the intense and complex interaction of the three dancers, often rolling and rotating in a conjoined threesome, sometimes transported by just a single pair of legs, as the dancers clutched and cuddled each other with great intimacy. The middle section, however, with the three dancing independently, seemed to be a random collection of unremarkable movement dominated by frequent king-fu kicks to the side. There was a strange asexual, almost androgynous, quality to the trio and Osipova seamlessly interacts with the two men, doing her fair share of lifting and carrying.

Maliphant has chosen to locate Osipova and Polunin within a visual and aural landscape that he has tried and tested many times. Working with his regular musical collaborator, Scanner, and ever-present lighting designer (Hulls), he gives us a Maliphant take on the structure of a classical grand pas de deux; beginning with a duet of two dancers held separately in tubes of downwards light and then progressing into a solo (variation) for both dancers, before bringing them back into a concluding duet (or coda). It is a beautiful variation on a well-mined theme and, having seen many wonderful dancers performing in the unique style and environment of a Maliphant/Hulls work – including, Guillem, of course – it was fascinating to see Osipova and Polunin apply their considerable skills in the Maliphant way. I marvelled at the speed and intensity of their accelerating turns.

It was left to Arthur Pita to bring on something that is rivetingly new. His take on a drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll tragedy was absorbing dance theatre with bite. Although not overtly based on her life, the narrative, music and imagery was heavily redolent of a dark night in the troubled later months of Amy Winehouse’s all-too-short existence. The title, Run Mary Run, referred to Osipova’s character, perhaps relating to Mary Weiss, lead singer of the ’60s group, The Shangri-Las, which provided the inspiration for Winehouse’s iconic album, Back to Black; and Osipova’s beehive hairstyle conjured imagery of both singers, encouraged and enhanced by Luis F. Carvalho’s excellent costumes; a highlight being Osipova’s short, slit, mustard-yellow shift dress.

Pita is without peer as the Quentin Tarantino of the modern dance world, albeit with far fewer dead bodies and an absence of gore. His narrative delivery, clarity of visual impact, inventive choreography and intuitively appropriate choice of music (here, beginning in the interval prior to Run Mary Run and continuing with Back to Black, after the curtain call) echo the slick, unrelenting momentum of the best Tarantino films. Pita also possesses a similar showman’s touch that enhances his burgeoning popularity with every new show.

In an effective opening sequence, Osipova’s arms slowly appeared from a heap of dirty sand, looping and curving like the long necks of a pair of courting swans; with Polunin – much later – being dragged lifelessly by the feet from the same pile of dung. The overarching mood of an obsessive, destructive love affair – fuelled by the volatile cocktail of drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll – was ever-present from the opening bars.

Polunin’s character (Jimmy) – clad in denim jeans, white t-shirt and biker’s leather jacket – was reminiscent of the James Dean solo, which Polunin choreographed (alongside Valentino Zucchetti) for a Men in Motion show on this stage, some four years’ ago, shortly after his departure from The Royal Ballet. He projects angst with charisma and is ideally typecast in a caricature of the “live fast, die young” celebrity (whether Dean or Whitehouse) that typifies the doom-laden, “splatter platter” death discs that peppered the recording output of The Shangri-Las (and others) in the Rock ‘n Roll era. Pita brings a cinematic scope to an outstanding union of movement, design and music.

Osipova delivers many layers of performance excellence to three very different vehicles. She is sexy, funny, dark, enigmatic and much more besides. Qutb is an optimistic work about the complex and intimate interaction of three bodies; Silent Echo juxtaposes the beauty of movement and light, heavily focused on individual dance skills; and Run Mary Run mixes dark humour and tragedy to give her the opportunity of grabbing melodrama with both hands and squeezing emotion from every moment. Some of the movement may feel familiar but the delivery is certainly unique.

Continues until 3 July -and returns 27 September – 1 October

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Photo: Bill Cooper

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