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Natalia Osipova review at Sadler’s Wells, London – ‘fails to set the stage ablaze’

Sergei Polunin and Natalia Osipova in Run Mary Run by Arthur Pita for Natalia Osipova at Sadler's Wells, London. Photo: Tristran Kenton
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Two of the brightest stars of classical ballet meet three of the world’s finest contemporary choreographers. What could possibly go wrong?

Rather a lot, it grieves me to announce. Of the three pieces specially commissioned for the Royal Ballet principal Natalia Osipova to prove she can get down and dirty with the best of modern dancers, only one serves its purpose to the full. Ironically, it is the only one she doesn’t dance with her inamorata Sergei Polunin, the tattoo-obsessed wannabe rock star who abandoned the Royal Ballet in 2012 to become a peripatetic freelance. Given that this marks the first time the Brangelina of ballet have danced together in the UK, hopes were high. Alas, the occasional sparks they generate fail to set the stage ablaze.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s three hander Qutb proves the most intriguing work. Against a backdrop of an accelerated eclipse, Osipova and two men (James O’Hara and Jason Kittelberger) play out a relationship that shifts through primitive ritual and mutual support. The atmosphere is thick and heavy, with sound and lighting suggesting an exotic rainforest in which three creatures engage in a series of rubbery, prehensile fusions of flesh. Extraordinary backbreaking lifts – one man supporting the two others – and Osipova curling herself backwards into an almost perfect c-shape are just two of the highlights. The rising wail of Sufi singers adds to the heady, perfumed physicality.

My admiration for the work of Russell Maliphant and his lighting collaborator Michael Hulls is almost boundless. But Silent Echo, in which Osipova and Polunin fling and strut like statues stretching themselves after a long day’s posing in the museum, is unhappily derivative of earlier, better work. Released from the prison of the solo spotlight, they roll and fall through solos and pas de deux that stretch the classical idiom like toffee into languid, sticky shapes. They both have a slouching insouciance and a come-on-if-you-think-you’re-hard-enough swagger that would work well if harnessed more securely to the work. Flashes of inspired movement, like the twin rotations in which they spin like tops around each other, are few and far between.

Finally, Arthur Pita’s Run Mary Run opens with a promising image, as Osipova’s arms emerge from a grave and dance in the air like Carrie on a good day. Rising up, she staggers around trying to shake out her inner zombie before pulling Polunin from the same grave. With a soundtrack compiled from teenage death songs by the Shangri-Las, the Crystals and others, Pita fashions a doomed teenage love affair played backwards.

Theatrically inventive, with a very realistic highway night scene and a handful of funny moments – including Osipova wrapped around Polunin like a limpet as he crosses and recrosses the stage and a mischievous kissing scene – there is far too much posing and posturing to no dramatic purpose.

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Osipova lets it all hang out in a trio of new contemporary works