Although the evening was titled Pure Dance, I was prepared to bet that almost every audience member was there not for the dance, but for the dancers: ballet royalty Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg, whose feature show it was.

Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg in The Leaves are Fading
© Daniel Boud

Pure Dance is a programme of six works, curated by Osipova for herself and Hallberg. Such programming reflects an increasing tendency of ballet stars to transcend company structures and take on the double mantle of freelance performer and artistic director. Naturally, this kind of career turn is mainly taken by dancers who already wield major audience-pulling power (similar moves by superstars Sylvie Guillem and Wendy Whelan spring to mind). Osipova and Hallberg, hailed as leading dancers of their generation, possess this in spades. And their partnership – his languid elegance; her fiery vivacity – is often described as electric. So with all that preceding reputation, did Pure Dance live up to expectations?

Yes... and no. With dancers of Osipova and Hallberg’s calibre, it would have been difficult for things to go completely wrong. They are both mesmerising artists. But this ability does not necessarily translate to mesmerising dance curation, and the contemporary selections in Pure Dance often felt flat. Still, the evening began and finished with classical dances, and these were just beautiful.

The first was the gorgeously haunting pas de deux from Antony Tudor’s 1975 The Leaves Are Fading. It requires flowing partnering and, like most Tudor ballets, great psychological depth. Osipova came alive with this dramatic intensity, which carried itself through the silver-fluidity of her arms and the liquid effortlessness of her steps. The classical Tudor choreography also showcased Hallberg’s famous lines, princely bearing, and smooth turns. Their combined artistry baptised the ballet afresh with flowing gracefulness. It was a true pleasure to watch two artists of such remarkable level, dance choreography of such remarkable sophistication.

The last dance of the programme, Alexei Ratmansky’s Valse triste, was similarly satisfying. It was created specially for Osipova and Hallberg, with Ratmansky giving outlet to Osipova’s fearless jumps by choreographing thrilling leaps into Hallberg’s arms. Even so, Valse triste retained true Ratmansky style – swiftness, whimsy beset with sudden poignance, and unexpected use of classical steps.

Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg in Valse triste
© Daniel Boud

The piece I found next most compelling was the Hallberg solo, In Absentia by Kim Brandstrup. In what appears to be a dark and lonely apartment, Hallberg stares moodily at a TV screen – the sole source of light, his famous classical silhouette thrown into sharp relief on the back wall – before embarking on a pensive solo to Bach’s Chaconne for violin. There is something about Bach’s music for solo violin or cello that seems to imbue movements with a sense of grand and eternal spaciousness. Brandstrup’s swirling choreography benefitted from this, and it worked well on Hallberg’s long lines and gracious movement quality.

Less successful were the three remaining contemporary pieces commissioned for Osipova. The first was Flutter by Iván Pérez, set to a strangely hypnotic Nico Muhly score of female voices repeatedly singing numbers. Flutter featured guest dancer Jonathan Goddard as Osipova’s partner, with the two dancers gamboling (fluttering?) up and down the stage. Interestingly, Goddard seemed much more at home in Pérez’s contemporary movement than Osipova, who really only seemed to 'fit' the choreography in the much more powerful second half.

The next contemporary Osipova duet was Roy Assaf’s Six Years Later, a piece about a couple grappling with their past, danced with Jason Kittelberger. Osipova has spoken about her inspiring dance relationship with Kittelberger (her partner in real life as well as on stage) and his dramatic intensity and presence is as confident as hers – he emerges as her charismatic equal. Assaf’s choreography is intriguingly clever, the frustrated couple unable to pull away from each other but connecting in all the wrong places, striking each others’ shoulders, forearms, and foreheads. And yet the piece suffered from inexplicable jolts in mood, jumping from Moonlight Sonata and taut contemporary choreography to Marmalade’s 1969 hit song Reflections of my Life and a mimed conversation straight out of a Richard Curtis romcom.

Natalia Osipova in Ave Maria
© Daniel Boud

The mood was very different in the final contemporary work, Yuka Oishi’s solemn Ave Maria, created as a solo to highlight Osipova’s femininity. It was not a choreographic standout, featuring spasming hands combined with classical leg movements, but it allowed the audience to witness Osipova’s dramatic individuality.

As much as Pure Dance was meant to be about Osipova and Hallberg transcending their balletic fame and exploring unchartered contemporary territory, the evening’s classical pieces were undeniably the strongest, and the contemporary works comparatively uneven. Nonetheless, Osipova and Hallberg have such luminous technical virtuosity and artistry that Pure Dance – even if not so “pure” is very worthwhile.