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© Ismene Brown 2017

Photo: Osipova & Chetverikov by Anton Zavyalov

09 JAN 17

A major review here of a major event in Russia of interest to Brits - Natalia Osipova's long-awaited debut in MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet in her home country. She was dancing in Perm, the first Russian city to be awarded the performing rights for the worldwide hit by the Kenneth MacMillan estate - of course, in Russia the versions by Leonid Lavrovsky (1940) and Yuri Grigorovich (1978-9) are the cultural yardsticks.

(Natalie Wheen wrote a fascinating article about the Perm debut of the MacMillan Romeo on The Arts Desk in 2013 in which she reported that his widow and trustee felt that it was more likely in Perm, rather than in the two state flagship companies, the Bolshoi and Mariinsky, that the work would be performed with the necessary commitment to a realistically nuanced dramatic sense common in English ballet performance style but bred out of the Russians since the Diaghilev era.)

As Tatiana Kuznetsova points out, a large part of the revelation of the experience for Russians of the power of MacMillan's version came from the conducting of the score by Teodor Kurentzis.

A couple of points stand out to me - the critic hails MacMillan's difficult and precise classical choreographic skills as well as his psychological truth (it is common, particularly in America but also in Britain, to overlook the choreographer's classical virtuosity). It would be easy, she says, to overlook the academic correctness of the lovers' steps because of the overwhelming impact of their theatrical immediacy.

She also judges, with proprietory Russian pride, that Osipova does the 'English style' better than any British ballerina, and that her partners in Perm gave her more ability to show what the MacMillan climaxes entailed than any partner she could have in England. (This is nicely of a piece with Kuznetsova's adoption of Ashton's Sylvia as a Russian ballet in essence that the British can't do as well as her compatriots - an argument worth looking at.)

However, this is not the first time that Moscow's senior critics have proved to be admirers of MacMillan, and still more of the British dramatic ballet style, which Kuznetsova has stated before is usually mucked up by uncomprehending Russians. (It's perhaps no coincidence that  Osipova's boyfriend Sergei Polunin - former Royal Ballet golden boy - has also introduced Russians to the British idea of dramatic verisimilitude in his periodic MacMillan and Ashton performances over there.)

Here's my translation.

Juliet and her conductor

Kommersant,13 December 2016, by Tatiana Kuznetsova

TWO extraordinary things happened at the Perm Ballet - events in repertoire, but quite out of the normal scheme of things. The Royal Ballet’s prima ballerina Natalia Osipova took the leading role, alongside Perm’s principal Nikita Chetverikov, in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, as choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan. And on the podium was the conductor Teodor Kurentzis.

It was Osipova the world star herself who wanted to dance in Perm; she could not pass a season by with her beloved Juliet role, but the MacMillan ballet was only being put on in the Urals. She arrived without a partner, although she had seen Perm’s principal Chetverikov once, when she was a jury member on one of the stages of the television show Big Ballet. The Perm stage is cosy and small, which the stage set by Mauro Carosi, the designer of the Shakespeare ballet, reduced still more markedly with a nine-step staircase and massive ‘stone’ walls - another thing that the the ballerina, famous among other things for the limitless elevation of her dancing, did not know.

Yet she performed on her debut in Perm with such freedom and confidence that she might have known every inch of the stage, and as if every person on stage with her was an old friend with whom she had worked for years.

In this, of course, we must credit Perm’s artists, who paid a fleeting star such careful attention, but without excess piety. The goodhearted busybody nurse (Galina Frolova) hugged her little girl with plain Russian familiarity. In the experienced hands of Perm’s Paris (Herman Starikov) Osipova’s Juliet described sudden dazzling jetés in lifts such as never happen with any of her Western ‘fiancés’, and yet her cautious suitor was showing no special ardour for her. Tybalt (Ivan Poroshin) arrogantly checked his overly spontaneous cousin, while Lord Capulet (Marat Fadeyev), in the scene forcing his daughter into marriage, wholeheartedly manhandled Osipova, throwing her to the floor in an extremely believable rage.

The most respectful of them was Romeo himself. Correct, well-proportioned and handsome, and carrying off all the feats large and small of his demanding role with surprising refinement, Chetverikov could not boast the natural temperament of a Romeo. For an academically well-bred dancer of traditional training it is not easy to kiss Juliet hard, to clap his hand to her breast so as to feel her heartbeat, or to shake her lifeless body in hopeless frenzy. But for all his natural restraint, he managed to outdo himself: in the balcony scene he appeared really passionate and joyous, in the chapel he was all emotion, while in the extreme lifts of the final scene Romeo’s emotional despair fully resonated in anger and sharp suffering.

It must be said that in MacMillan’s choreography the pas de deux are the best part of the ballet, all of them extremely difficult and risky. Thus it was the mature partnering reliability of young Chetvernikov that gave Osipova licence for freedom: she could surrender to the role fearlessly and selflessly, not worrying that she would fly past her partner, or that he would not hold her in a whirl of sudden pirouettes, or drop her like a log at some especially frantic climax.

For the ballerina British classical choreography is a native language, not only because she has already been dancing with Covent Garden for three years, mastering the English ballet style better than any other ballerina. Osipova’s huge dramatic gift could almost be the fount of ‘psychological’ ballet, in terms of making utmost authenticity of  the experience. MacMillan’s choreography demands not just special acting talent but ideal coordination in the dance: in his ballets the dancers’ legs are laying down exemplarily academic pas, as if not knowing what the torso is doing - whether it’s suffering, triumphing, tormented with love, trembling with impatience or fury.

Natalia Osipova showed in Perm, dancing Romeo and Juliet in Russia for the first time, what English-style ballet means: it is almost not ballet at all. That is, the ballerina’s classical technique was impeccable - her free, wide turns, her explosive jumps, her deliciously executed ronds de jambe in adagio, and pearly pas de bourrée. But to notice this required considerable effort, so bewitching was the theatrical vividness of this courageous and utterly sincere Juliet. This degree of physical freedom, of psychological sophistication and reactive precision is hardly possible nowadays, except in the best contemporary dance creations.

In the third act of the ballet Juliet is practically never off stage, and in effect dance comes second to the dramatic episodes with her parents, with Paris, with the priest - which come close to what is usually taken as mime. And here Osipova’s expressiveness found almost frightening power, the section where Juliet overcomes her terror to take the sleeping draught stirred up something beyond balletic, a ruthless, almost clinical truth.

But through all the circumstances of her short, reckless life, Osipova’s Juliet was held and supported by her chief, and most sensitive partner - the conductor Teodor Kurentzis. Conducting from memory, turning the familiar score into music of unprecedented profundity and tragic feeling, he underlined both Prokofiev’s elastic  danceability and the violence of it - a very rare case where a unique conductor and a unique ballerina are so close in feeling and so completely complementary in the nature of their gifts.

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' Osipova showed in Perm, dancing Romeo and Juliet in Russia for the first time, what English-style ballet means: it is almost not ballet at all'

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