Modern dance may have emerged in opposition to ballet, but the conflict between classical and contemporary dance has often been declared over. Yet as the London summer season showed, faultlines clearly remain.
Natalia Osipova is not the first ballet star to have commissioned contemporary choreographers, but unlike most others she is doing so not towards the end of her classical career but in its prime. In 2014 she toured a triple bill of contemporary choreography with Ivan Vasiliev (her former off-stage partner); this year she invited two choreographers back – Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Arthur Pita – who together with Russell Maliphant created an evening of new work for her and Sergei Polunin (her current off-stage partner). The results are interesting, but miss their mark.
The mismatch is clearest in Cherkaoui’s trio Qutb, a mystical and somewhat mystifying evocation of cosmic powers and winding energies. A desert sun burns on the backdrop, Sufi melodies saturate the stage. The piece is a series of intertwinings, Osipova and her bare-chested companions James O’Hara and Jason Kittelberger snaking together in twos and threes, from which a solo sometimes slithers out. There’s no doubting Osipova’s amazing ability as a dancer, but her style sticks out. O’Hara and Kittelberger are already versed in the breathy dynamics, weighted carriage and fluid interplay that the choreography demands, but Osipova still holds herself high and controls rather than releases her movements. O’Hara in particular has a wonderful quality of float and fall; beside him, Osipova seems to strain for effect.
Maliphant’s Silent Echo is far more physically poised in style, and so better suited to its dancers, Osipova and Polunin; but it is less ambitious as choreography. Maliphant has a real gift for building sustained compositions from small motifs, but here he has reined himself in. An enthralling section of flywheel spins, for example, promises much but is abandoned before its potential is realised. Still, Osipova seems in her element, even if Polunin only looks really comfortable when he does some big, beaten ballet jumps that are as impressive as they are out of context.
Arthur Pita’s Run, Mary, Run – the most successful piece of the evening – relies as much on acting and staging as on dancing. Its soundtrack comes from the “splatter platter” songs of teenage heartbreak by 60s girl-groups The Shangri-Las and The Crystals, and Pita wallows gleefully in their dark side. Osipova rises from the grave to recall the fatal romance with a no-good guy she once loved. In beehive wig and lime-green miniskirt, she clearly relishes the opportunity to play both retro and lusty, although Polunin inhabits the outfit (shades, t-shirt, roll-up jeans) more fully than he does the role. Yet it’s a mordantly effective piece, mainly let down by its length: every episode runs out of juice before its music finishes. Perhaps Pita just needed more time.
The Ballet National de Marseille paid a fleeting visit to London with Body.Dance.Nation.City by experimental choreographic duo Emio Greco and Pieter Scholten, long-standing collaborators who took over as the company’s artistic directors in 2014. Riffing on the words in its original title Le Corps du Ballet National de Marseille, the work is a scattershot series of scenes variously referencing classical style, group action (the corps de ballet), the notion of nation (the Marseillaise is played repeatedly) and the multiplicity of the modern city (the anthem is given diverse musical treatments, from rock to reggae to rap). Fragments of Giselle or Swan Lake are set against jarring soundtracks, or splintered in space. Dancers might substitute each other mid-duet, a traditional pas de deux is refracted through the entire corps. Classical steps are undercut with off-the-cuff gestures, decorum with smoking and shouting. The dancers are excellent, but it’s impossible to focus on anything in the headlong juxtapositions of ideas, actions, gestures, sounds, styles and sarcasms. This is ballet deconstructed, dissected and ironised – to death.
Whatever their shortcomings, these were thoughtful works – which is more than could be said of St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s Her Name Was Carmen. A star vehicle for principal dancer Irina Kolesnikova, the piece proposes to give contemporary relevance to classical ballet by locating the action in a camp for Syrian refugees. At no point do choreographer (Olga Costel) and librettist (Roman Smirnov) seem to have followed that thought through, for they end up simply transposing the worst orientalist clichés of nineteenth-century ballet into the twenty-first century Middle Eastern migrant crisis. The refugees, with their harem pants and scarf dances, serve as little more than local colour and conscience-salve for the distended personal dramas of visiting rich girl Kolesnikova, a dastardly human trafficker, and a bland camp guard. Kolesnikova is a strong dancer, but the piece is worse than weak, it’s wince-inducing. Classical-contemporary crossovers may not always be successful but they can be productive and stimulating. So yes, give me Osipova, give me Body.Dance.Nation.City – but please, turn this one back at the border.