Two Paintings in the Same Frame

By Leigh Witchel

Having to pinch hit for someone in one of the most anticipated reunions in ballet couldn’t have been easy. Called away from dinner by an emergency call from company director Kevin O’Hare, Matthew Ball finished David Hallberg’s first outing with Natalia Osipova in “Giselle,” then filled in for him at the last scheduled performance.

Instead of the rekindling of an electric partnership, we saw the tentative meeting of two talented dancers at very different points in their career. Their challenge was breaking through their very different relationships to the ballet. Osipova has now done Giselle for over a decade; Ball had made his debut only a few weeks before.

When he first walked onstage, Ball’s appearance was his character: pale skin, ripe lips and high, wide forehead – young, pale, pretty and coddled. Ball mimed clearly but the emotion seemed to stop at his skin: a frown or a smile, not a motivation. His acting was still external – neatly making the gestures he was taught as the text; only discovering their details as he made them. We watched him learn on the job.

Osipova was in a completely different place. She burst onstage for her first entry filled with energy and circled the room, delivering a star performance with her signature Osipovisms – even if she delivered them in a vacuum. Her familiarity with the part led her to stray restlessly from the text, or telegraph it in shorthand. Her dancing was huge and loose, with high limbs and broken wrists. She soared in the air, or ripped into sudden chaînés. If you were looking for choreography, you would have been frustrated – Osipova cared even less about a choreographic text than she ever did. Choreography is a script that she felt free to depart from and ad lib.

She and Ball looked good together and were forging a connection as we watched. They looked into one another’s eyes as they indicated steps and walked together instead, clasping hands. He is tall and used his height to rebalance the first act. On their first appearance it looked like she was in charge until he moved toward her and towered over her.

That connection didn’t yet carry over into steps – When Osipova wasn’t getting electricity from Ball, she’d deliver the effect on her own. She moved away from him and slammed into multiple en dedans turns as if to convince herself dancing didn’t exhaust her heart. But that seemed like a detail of her ballet, rather than theirs.

Osipova danced the Act 1 variation as a demonstration that dancing was Giselle’s life force. There were no pretty-pretty poses in pointe tendue: it was all risky suspended balances and toothy exhilaration.

Her mad scene had the same broad brushstrokes. She threw petals of an imaginary daisy skywards and sprinted around the stage, laughing, then gasping for air. It was huge, yet still abbreviated, like a late Rembrandt painting when he no longer needed to show every stitch of a gold braid – a bold slash told your eye what it was.

Ball’s Albrecht accreted details rather than indicating them. You could see in his expression how inexperienced, chastened and horrified Albrecht was. This seemed like his first lie and it went wrong in ways he never could have fathomed. He scrunched his face like a child about to burst into tears when he heard Hilarion blow the horn, and when he tried to leave every exit was blocked by an entering noble.

One of the Royal Ballets strengths is the capacity to fill the ballet with vivid supporting characterizations. Thomas Whitehead was a direct, uncomplicated Hilarion. Osipova’s reaction to him was also uncomplicated: a shrug and head shake that said “I don’t love you” without any emotion other than the sense that she had no idea why he would think she did.

Alastair Marriott turned an unwritten part, the Leader of the Hunt, into a scene-stealing comic turn, making him fussy and officious. Gary Avis was a Duke who’d rather be drinking or shooting something – you know, guy stuff. Olivia Cowley was a beautiful, stony Bathilde.

What in most New York productions has been the Peasant Pas de Deux is here a pas de six. The three men in it were all very talented; James Hay’s upper body and port de bras were as finely tuned as his legs. Calvin Richardson and Joseph Sissens shone in a difficult circuit of jumps and turns.

The role of Berthe, played by Elizabeth McGorian as tall and gaunt, was more pivotal than in some productions. She had an extended mime scene that felt overdone if you knew the story but explained things if you didn’t. She rejected Albrecht’s grief and the final tableau of the act was her alone cradling Giselle’s lifeless body.

Osipova’s Act 2 entry was an Osipovism where she altered the choreography to create a unique, larger-than-life effect: wild spinning followed by huge jumps picking her legs up under her. But without the connection she had to Hallberg, the tricks felt showy rather than an attempt to shape the meaning of the ballet.

Matthew Ball in “Giselle.” Photo © Bill Cooper.

Ball’s entry in Act 2, this time in a tunic and cape, showed again how much he looked the part. When caught by the Myrtha and the Wilis, he opened his arms to accept his fate like an exquisitely chiseled sculpture. Between his perfect shapes and her passion the first adagio was a beautiful event, but not yet a partnership. The lifts went well, but when Osipova started her solo, she motioned him to wait by the cross the way you’d command a dog to stay.

In secondary roles, Claire Calvert was sharp and imperious as Myrtha, with tight hands pointing the way in traveling arabesques. Yet she wasn’t imposing. The Brits don’t see Myrtha as a tall role. She had two very different lieutenants; Cowley was languid, with arabesques that seemed to last forever, which Beatriz Stix-Brunell imagined Zulme as more militant, switching arms quickly to finish perched in attitude with the arm held high.

The final struggle with the Wilis moved between studied or pictorial effects and something deeper. Osipova loaded up on Osipovisms: Her foot circling like a firefly at the end of a long leg, high jumps arcing back, or rocketing upwards on one leg with the other foot curled round her ankle.

Ball’s variation plunged as far into detail as he could: clean double cabrioles, turns on a pure axis with the arms slowly rising. His fastidious beats became his metaphor for the role.

The exhaustion he must have felt helped push the role from a painting to something three-dimensional. When he was blocked by the Wilis and commanded into his final volley of beats, panic registered: he realized he was about to die.

And yet Giselle held the Wilis off until daylight, and Osipova started to weep when she heard the clock strike. Cradling his exhausted body, holding his hand to her heart and raising her other hand to swear in a defiant gesture, she became a final image of female strength – this time not Rembrandt, but straight out of a Russian propaganda poster.

This partnership formed out of sudden need deserves some time for Osipova and Ball to find their way into the same painting.  But cross your fingers that the scheduled Giselle in May of Hallberg and Osipova in New York happens.

copyright © 2018 by Leigh Witchel

“Giselle” – The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House, London, UK
March 9, 2018

Cover: Natalia Osipova and Matthew Ball in “Giselle.” Photo © Bill Cooper.

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