Since the Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova first burst onto the international scene, nearly 20 years ago, people have been calling her a force of nature. Lately, that’s what she’s been calling herself. “Force of Nature” is the title of the touring program that she brought to New York City Center on Saturday for a sold-out, one-night-only show.
These kinds of star-and-her-friends programs are opportunities for Osipova to be in charge and exhibit her range, choosing which works she wants to dance, ballet staples or contemporary premieres. Because of those choices and because the shows, composed mostly of duets and solos, tend to be focused on her current onstage (and often offstage) partnership, they are self-portraits, revealing in intentional and unintentional ways. “Force of Nature” featured her new husband, the contemporary dancer Jason Kittelberger, as dancer and choreographer. He provided the sole premiere, “Weight of It.” But this program was Osipova’s most backward-looking yet.
Much of it paid tribute to the Royal Ballet, where she has a been a principal dancer for a decade, drawing from the company’s canonical choreographers, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan. Her other partners were Royal Ballet colleagues: Marcelino Sambé and Reece Clarke.
Yet for her New York fans, her first selection summoned older memories. It was the Act II pas de deux from “Giselle,” the ballet in which she made her first big impression here, with American Ballet Theater in 2009. Ably partnered by the elegant Sambé, she reproduced her febrile intensity, her strength shrouded in fragility and her famously weightless jumps, though the excerpt could only suggest how affecting and varied she can be in the full ballet.
The second selection reached back further, to her Bolshoi Ballet beginnings with the Soviet showpiece “Flames of Paris Pas de Deux.” Only this time, Osipova didn’t dance. Generously and pragmatically (even forces of nature need to rest), she ceded the stage to Yeva Hrytsak, an 18-year-old Ukrainian dancer now studying at New York’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, and Takumi Miyake, a 19-year-old member of the American Ballet Theater Studio Company. No Osipovan explosion, Hrytsak struggled some, but Miyake was thrilling: geyser-like in jumps and vertiginous in turns without sacrificing form.
With her Royal Ballet picks, Osipova seemed to be highlighting the passion and impetuosity of her stage persona. In the bedroom duet from MacMillan’s “Manon,” the headlong romance was girlish. In Ashton’s evocation of Isadora Duncan (with the program’s only live music, Brahms waltzes played by the vibrant pianist Oleksandr Grynyuk), her free-spiritedness had a little too much force.
With Kittlelberger, Osipova performed Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Pure,” in which a woman paints herself and a man wipes her skin with a cloth, perhaps to erase her past or heal her wounds. Here, the entwining duet looked closer to the cleaning of a messy toddler, but it helped reveal Cherkaoui’s heavy influence on the rolling, martial-arts flow of Kittelberger’s choreography.
Kittelberger’s “Weight of It” was a trio. Osipova, Kittelberger, and Sambé (especially gorgeous here) were variously connected by a bit of looped fabric, with Osipova sometimes swinging between the men. The story was most strongly suggested by the exits, Kittelberger and Osipova leaving in one direction, Sambé in another.
Was this about the weight of the past? In Kittelberger’s “Ashes,” Osipova seemed to be absorbed in memory, successfully summoning the verve of youth with stomps and claps before rolling herself up in a rug. A newly added section for the self-upending Kittelberger felt superfluous.
In the end, the most vivid selection of “Force of Nature” was a repeat from Osipova’s last City Center show, in 2019: Alexei Ratmansky’s “Valse Triste.” Back then, it seemed a portrait of the storied partnership between Osipova and David Hallberg: the Apollonian American barely keeping up with the impulsive Russian, catching her when she leaped.
Now with Hallberg replaced by Clarke, it looked more like a portrait of Osipova: her independence, her unforced force, like Tolstoy’s Natasha caught up in a waltz. Ratmansky, who has known her since her Bolshoi days, sees her well, better than she sees herself.