I still remember the excitement of watching Natalia Osipova in her first Don Quixote with ABT, back in 2010. She danced with José Manuel Carreño, who was no longer at the top of his game, but still one of the most appealing leading men in the business, and certainly no slouch. (His turns were especially thrilling, I remember, beautifully controlled and embellished with all sorts of curlicues with his free leg.) I remember the look on his face as he leaned against a banister watching Osipova streak through the air. “Damn,” he seemed to be thinking, “this girl can jump.”
Last night, Osipova performed with her regular partner, Ivan Vasiliev, now also a fixture at ABT. It’s strange. My reaction to his dancing changes from performance to performance. I admire his vitality and fearlessness. His inhuman leaps move me, as does his intense desire to please. He’s generous, powerful, and he works terribly hard. But the more one sees him dance the more one becomes aware of certain serious limitations. The shapes he makes in the air are undefined and inelegant; he doesn’t point his feet; his knees are bent when they should be straight; he doesn’t bother to turn out his legs most of the time. His turns are an exercise in perseverance, in which he substitutes the elegant verticality of placement—which he doesn’t have—with the effort of abdominal strength. When dancing in a group, he often marks or fudges the steps. Seeing him struggle to keep up during the third movement of Symphony in C last week was fascinating, and not in a good way. It became terribly clear to me that certain swathes of the ballet repertoire are almost foreign to him.
Don Quixote isn’t Balanchine, but it has its own integrity and its own brand of charm, broader for sure, but still. It’s not a dog-and-pony show. Watching Herman Cornejo and Xiomara Reyes (or Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland on tape) one sees how it is possible to make a world come alive onstage, with sophistication and style. Reyes, who is over forty and not particularly dazzling in her technique, can still do a satisfying Kitri, within certain limits. She does unembellished fouetté turns, but stays right on the music. Cornejo is something else: a dashing virtuoso who sacrifices nothing in the pursuit of bravura. Each jump is like a series of photographs; his turns, which he has clearly amped up for speed this season, are easy and clean, feet rigorously pointed, legs elegantly extended, balance held just a bit longer than one expects. He’s even looking taller these days, an illusion created by the weight and extension of his movement.
Last night’s (May 25) performance by Osipova and Vasiliev was a different beast, and, despite the virtuosic feats and the roars of applause, it felt rather sad to this ballet lover. Because the truth is I got the feeling that Osipova and Vasiliev are rather bored with Don Q. They’ve done it all before. What is left is the urge to do more, to add extra tricks in order to keep the audience satisfied. To hold an overhead lift forever, while also balancing on one leg in arabesque. More turns, at a faster clip. Fouettés augmented by double and triple turns. Cabrioles in which the legs not only thwack, but also split open between one thwack and the next. Five-hundred-and-forty-degree barrel jumps at the drop of a hat, in both the first act and the last. Jumps with see-sawing legs, causing the upper body to judder. The elimination of pretty steps—like the delicious diagonal of pas de chevals in Kitri’s harp solo—for the purpose of cramming in yet more lightning-fast turns. Outrageous eye rolls and comic-book faces meant to “spice up” the (already broad) comedy. Treating Minkus’s upbeat score, with its mix of Spanish dances, like the jota and the zingara, as simply a series of drumrolls announcing the next attraction.
I’m not denying the duo’s talent, mind you: Osipova’s preparatory jumps shoot higher than the ballon most men can attain in their biggest leaps, and she seems to have no weak points at all, technically speaking. (Her acting, too, is energetic.) Both she and Vasiliev have stirred me in the past, together and separately. Who can blame them for growing tired of being asked to outperform themselves, time after time? But last night’s performance of Don Q was proof that big jumps, fast turns, and oodles of charisma do not a fun time guarantee.
On a brighter note: Aléxandre Hammoudi was a hilarious and dashing torero, displaying just the right amount of irony in this throwaway role. With what flair he flipped his cape, sliding the edge over his shoulder for extra effect, turning this minor flourish into a real event. And how he arched his back, rising high on his toes—those feet!— to create a sensual, Spanish curve, flashing his dark eyes. Finally, it looks like this young dancer might be coming into his own.
Now this was panache.