Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Osipova in MacMillan's Manon at the Royal Opera House

Such was the impact that Natalia Osipova made during her first season at Covent Garden that the ticket sales for her first performance of the second, as Manon in MacMillan's ballet, resembled a war zone. Sold out within hours of opening to the general public, I finally managed to procure a day ticket online on the day of the performance. Having pretty much missed Osipova in a full-length ballet all last season (having a poor seat for Giselle and her being injured for both scheduled performances of Sleeping Beauty) I was determined to be there to see the dancer I had so long admired.
The view from C:20 - balcony level
Manon is not, however, a ballet that seems immediately suited for Osipova. Her greatest feature has long since been her remarkable technique - those airy, ecstatic leaps! Those dizzying spins! MacMillan's choreography is rather bereft of these showpiece passages. In its stead are enormous lifts, devilish in their apparent ease, and a sordid tale accompanied by unapologetic choreography. Professedly Russian (and with a tendency to be 'Bolshoi'), I myself had doubts about Osipova's approach to this English ballet. The past season saw her blow such misconceptions out the water with a mesmerisingly haunted Giselle - could she possibly do it again?
Full House
The answer is yes - ostensibly. The moment she first stepped onto the stage, it was clear - there are few actresses of Osipova's calibre at the Royal Ballet. She embodied Manon with every fibre of her being. Such is her entrance; fluttering forth from the carriage, she does not outstretch her arms to luxuriate in the warm reception - both on and off stage - instead, her dark eyes are already sparkling with mirth and mischief, darting around in search of pleasure. Her characterisation surprised many; it was so unapologetically narcissistic, but never cruel. This is the true conception that Prevost wished to portray in his original novel. His Manon was never a wide-eyed ingenue - to play her thus would be an insult to the virile defence of love that characterises the entire novel. Nor is she ever malicious or cruel; des Grieux remarks that he never doubts that her love is as true as his, but it is eclipsed, not obliterated, by her voracity for pleasure. In this respect, Osipova was superb. She danced with every ounce of loveliness befitting a beautiful young girl, her head turned at every compliment. Through it all, there was the odd sense of premonition that had also pervaded her Giselle - the feeling of a candle  burning too fiercely bright, of a rapaciousness that hastens the inevitable end. Her Manon's love of pleasure was not incidental but determined - determined to sample all the fruits of life for fear of them spoiling. The first pas de deux between her and Acosta's des Grieux (in which they fall in love) emanated that feeling. This tenacious Manon was not in awe of this new flurry of emotions; instead, she revelled in her sexual awakening with peculiar curiosity. When she spun in his arms, she opened her body completely to him; and in the climatic lift, she froze while aloft in the air, as if fearful of disrupting these awakened sensibilities before her eyes shut in ecstasy and she tumbled down into her lover's arms. 

Remarkable as it seems, this was only the first out of four manifestations of Osipova's Manon. In the latter half of the bedroom pas des deux, we met yet another girl, with a veracious appetite for sex and blooming confidence in her own desirability. Her gaze was still playful, but yet more predatory. Each movement, each caress of her gown or step across the stage was hyper-aware. When she stopped to kiss her love, it wasn't a mere confirmation of affection, but a sudden need to feel the sensation of skin upon skin. Whatever this Manon felt, she felt keenly - it was this kind of heady pursuit of pleasure that made her downfall all the more believable. 

The last vision of Manon is one that is more broken than others. Just as Osipova's Act 2 Giselle last year took on a hauntingly macabre chill, her Manon has angular and disjointed; she isn't afraid to forsake what she feels embodies realism for the sake of aesthetic pleasure. As it is, it suits both her and her Manon - both of them aim higher, burn more fiercely, immerse themselves more recklessly that there must be an adverse reaction. The higher their euphoria soars, the more maiming the downfall. When Manon appearing in Act 3, she seemed barely conscious. Her feet moved, but her gaze was blank - she had already left. The final pas de deux displayed this post powerfully - from the beginning where des Griex held her weak body aloft, he was willing her to live. And Manon - she wants to live more than any other, but were beauty has fled there is now only tenacity. So she gathers her energy to leap into his arms over and over - only to lose her energy, becoming dangerously limp until he is dancing with a corpse. 

Most remarkably, however, all facets of Osipova's Manon were flawlessly interlinked. Through all the guises of mischievous girl, young lover, ambitious courtesan and demeaned prostitute, there remains the same spirit in them all - a mere twitch on the thread can bring them all back to the beginning. Hers is not the first Manon I have seen this season, but it is the most comprehensive, by some distance.
Osipova! Osipova! Osipova!
However, some lingering doubts remain over the wisdom of her partnership with Acosta. As of now, the Royal Ballet is more stacked in their male principals than females. With a wealth of talent including my personal favourite Edward Watson, Steven McCrae and the new Vadim Muntagirov, it is surprising that they persist in billing Osipova alongside Acosta who will be retiring at the end of next season. His arabesques are not so free now, his steps not quite as springy. Although he doesn't appear laboured by any means, his portrayal of des Grieux as a devoted youth failed to conjure much chemistry with Osipova's decadent Manon. While she had sensuality in spadefuls, it did not seem particularly directed at him. Inevitably, Acosta has not the fire and alacrity he had in his youth, and as it is, they lacked in dynamism. 

Nevertheless, many of the other aspects of the performance seemed elevated too, in her presence. Thiago Soares' return as Lescaut was a fantastically welcome addition - he and Calvert were true gems. While Soares' finishing still left something to be desired, his drunk adagio was superb, and his acting as good as always. Calvert matched her partner's heights with equally masterful comic timing. Together they coaxed rapturously loud applause. For the first time this season, the orchestra seemed to play in perfect tandem with the dancing - none of the pas de deus sequences seemed dragged out, as was the case on the previous two occasions I was at Covent Garden. 

Overall, it was certainly a memorable evening - I came back from Covent Garden will all my objectives thoroughly satisfied. For the first time in this run, I believed in Manon and lived her short life with her - bravo Osipova!

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