Title: Natural Liftoff and Intense Inner Life for a Daughter of the Air
Author: Alastair Macaulay
Date: June 14, 2009
Publisher: The New York Times
During the intermission of Saturday evening’s “Giselle” at the Metropolitan Opera House, a woman approached me while I was talking with a friend over coffee. “I just have to ask,” she said, “is it always this wonderful?” I asked if she had seen “Giselle” before. As if to explain that the answer was no, she said, “I’m from Nova Scotia.”
I could have told her that I know a music critic and a dance critic from Nova Scotia who have both known “Giselle” for years. Instead I explained that the young Giselle of the evening’s performance, Natalia Osipova, was making her debut with American Ballet Theater, that she came from the Bolshoi in Moscow, that she had already been exciting a few years ago as a remarkably strong and colorful soloist, and that her performance in London in the Bolshoi’s “Don Quixote” two years ago had caused a major sensation. And no, neither “Giselle” nor ballet itself was always this wonderful.
Within the first few seconds of Ms. Osipova’s entrance on Saturday a number of things were immediately evident. This Giselle is at once shy and febrile, living keenly in the moment, with an ardent inner life; and she is phenomenally gifted for dancing. Giselle’s first dance step is really just a kind of hop (ballonné); I don’t ever recall any ballerina’s getting so astounding a liftoff from the basic spring action of one foot. Giselle then curtails that hop, while still in the air, by bringing in her other foot to meet the ankle of the first; Ms. Osipova enunciated this with unusual clarity and emphasis.
Everything that followed, fulfilling the promise of these details, was singularly vivid, memorable, important and heartfelt. In nitpicky mode I could question the line of one arabesque in her main solo. In Act II she is among the many Giselles who aren’t at ease in the two arabesques penchées (extending one leg backward and up while leaning forward and down) on flat foot. But it is a sign of her astonishing freshness that the first of those penchées was the only moment all evening when she seemed to be attempting a calculated effect.
At all other points, watching her, you found yourself moment by moment caught up in her nervous system. When she briefly arrives on Albrecht’s shoulder at one point in an Act I dance, she is as much anxious as happy; and her immediate reaction on alighting is, self-effacingly, to ask him to dance. A minute later, dancing beside him, she’s in bliss to rest her head on his shoulder; then, a moment after that she’s bashful about this very proximity. Later, when she sees him greet Bathilde as his future bride, she takes a step back in dread, briefly, as if this were something she had imagined. But a moment later she runs pell-mell to separate him from Bathilde. In the mad scene she is ideally intense in playing with the sword, laughing hysterically, falling like a rag doll, revisiting her moments of love and dance, feeling the breaking of her heart and then the chills of death.
The airborne quality that was so startling from the first in Act I was all the more remarkable when Giselle became a ghost in Act II. She took to the air so naturally that it made you feel, retrospectively, that this had always been her destiny from her entrance in Act I. Springing up from both feet while keeping those feet together (in soubresauts), she drove the audience — which had been in a tizzy of excitement all along — wild.
Better yet were the rapidly quivering circlings of her raised foot, ascending in ronds de jambe sautés. These, so musically acute, gleamed and showed us — just when Giselle herself would rather not display this side to Albrecht — Giselle’s new nature as a dance siren (a wili).
But this was not a performance that fell apart into highlights. Nowhere did Ms. Osipova rely on technical tricks. In all her more private Act II dances with Albrecht, her quality of legato stayed unmannered and touching. A superlative debut: a true artist and an exceptional dancer.
David Hallberg’s Albrecht, partnering her, is a nobleman overcome by desire; he too makes everything singularly bright. In his New York debut in the role on Wednesday afternoon (with the Giselle of Maria Riccetto), he played it with an elegant charm that, though apparently sincere now, you could imagine turning one day into the wiles of a true philanderer; but with Ms. Osipova on Saturday night his manner was more innocent. Both his dancing and his partnering are exceptionally distinguished; the volleys of entrechat-six were a match for those by Marcelo Gomes earlier in the week, and the refinement of his line is without equal among all the world’s male ballet dancers.
He and Ms. Osipova worked together beautifully. Small lifts acquired new poetry, as when in Act II he slowly carried her across the stage in a low arabesque: her body and lower leg swayed back as if tenderly blown by the breeze, and then she very gently but precisely advanced her point to plant it on the ground. Such images made the psychic bond between tender ghost and devoted lover — a bond that had begun in their shared love of dance — the central thread of the drama.
American Ballet Theater’s season at the Metropolitan Opera House runs through July 11; Natalia Osipova is to dance “La Sylphide” on June 15 and 17; (212) 362-6000, abt.org or metopera.org.