Natalia Osipova’s one-night-only event (entitled Force of Nature) at NY City Center was a red-letter day for balletomanes. Osipova’s trips to NYC are now very rare, and she’s a dancer even casual balletomanes have seen on YouTube. Ticket prices were through the roof, and the performance was sold out.

Natalia Osipova in Giselle
© Julieta Cervantes

Alas, even the most hardcore Osipova fans might have left the evening scratching their heads at the choices made. Make no mistake, Osipova is an exceptional dancer. You know how dancers are either jumpers or turners? Osipova is both. She also has an incredibly dynamic stage presence. In roles like Giselle or Juliet she doesn’t dance, she blazes.

However, not many of her special qualities were on display last night. The City Center homepage promised the gala staples like the Don Quixote pas de deux and Dying Swan, but we somehow got neither. Instead, the evening was anchored by three very long, modern pieces that were choreographed by Osipova’s partner Jason Kittelberger.

The evening wasn’t a total loss – it was a pleasure seeing Osipova in the Giselle pas de deux again, even if this was a somewhat abridged version that also deleted the iconic developpé that usually starts the pas de deux. When Osipova flew into the air with those bunny hops, it was like savoring a favorite meal again. Her partner, Marcelino Sambé of the Royal Ballet, was an audience pleaser with a jump that matched Osipova's in explosiveness.

Natalia Osipova in Isadora
© Julieta Cervantes

It was also wonderful to see Osipova in Sir Frederick Ashton’s Five Brahams Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan. This miniature gem was Ashton’s tribute not just to Isadora Duncan, but to Lynn Seymour, a dancer with extraordinary, expressive gifts. The piece showed off Osipova’s uniquely intense persona. The final scene with Osipova spreading flower petals all over the stage was breathtaking, and would have been a perfect ending to the evening.

Other dancers supplemented the evening. One was Reece Clarke, also from The Royal Ballet, in another Ashton miniature gem, the Dance of the Blessed Spirits. Two dancers from ABT’s studio company danced that gala staple, the Flames of Paris pas de deux. Takumi Miyake was amazing in that gala way – all those barrel turns and 540s (revoltades) wowed the audience. Yeva Hrystak had a stumble in the fouettés but was lovely. It begs the question – what are they doing still in the studio company?

Then there was Alexei Ratmansky’s Valse Triste, set to Jean Sibelius’s piece of the same name. This is the sort of thing Ratmansky does so well. He really knows how to make an old-fashioned, romantic pas de deux. Osipova dialed back her intensity and really floated through this piece. The audience adored it. So, lots of good stuff. I didn’t even mind the Manon bedroom pas de deux, which usually irritates me.

Reece Clarke and Natalia Osipova in Valse Triste
© Julieta Cervantes

Unfortunately, the three longest, time-eating pieces of the evening were modern dance collaborations with Jason Kittelberger. I don’t mind modern dance. The problem was the quality of the pieces. The first one was Pure, choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and it was so bizarre it was sort of enjoyable. The work starts with Osipova eating something. But wait, it turns out she's licking paint off a paintbrush. There’s a passionate, acrobatic pas de deux between Osipova and Kittelberger, but then Osipova stabs herself and then paints all over her body. It seems to be a self-harming ritual but then Kittelberger is back and he wipes her clean again. Yay, I guess?

The second modern piece was Weight of It, by Kittelberger. This one at least had the benefit of a beautiful score by Ilan Eshkeri, but the dance itself was a clichéd, overwrought pas de trois between Osipova, Kittelberger and Marcelino Sambé. 

Jason Kittelberger, Natalia Osipova, Marcelino Sambé in Weight of It
© Julieta Cervantes

Osipova saved the worst for last: Kittelberger’s Ashes. I’ll just admit that I had no idea what was happening here. There was a stool, a gray area rug, some screechy music, and a lot of writhing both on the floor and the stool. The finale had Osipova wrapping herself in the area rug like a mummy and rolling on the stage floor. It wasn’t even a guilty pleasure. It was just bad.

That ended the evening on a decidedly underwhelming note. The best comment about the program came from another dance critic, who remarked, “I don’t think this was the advertisement for her boyfriend’s work that she had intended.” Indeed.