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Another Star is Born

American Ballet Theatre

'Romeo and Juliet' - Natalia Osipova's debut

by Jerry Hochman

July 10 Matinée Performance, 2010 -- Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

I wish I had seen Alessandra Ferri's first MacMillan Juliet. Or Diana Vishneva's. Or any of the Juliets of Lynn Seymour, on whom MacMillan created the role. And perhaps most, I wish I had seen Gelsey Kirkland's first complete performance of Juliet, though I would have felt privileged had I had the opportunity to see any of them.

But it is some consolation that I have seen Natalia Osipova's debut in the role, at yesterday's penultimate American Ballet Theatre performance of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" this season at the Met.

Perhaps no relatively unknown ballerina arrived in New York with the kind of hype that greeted Ms. Osipova's guest appearances last year with ABT. After her performance of "Giselle" with ABT last year, I commented that 'the hype was right.' And after her Kitri and her debut as Aurora earlier this season, no one could seriously doubt that Ms. Osipova had the potential to be a world class ballerina.

But her Juliet takes her performance quality to an even higher level.  She, is indisputably and legitimately, a star.

Ms. Osipova's portrayal was not perfect - and since I appreciate the opportunity to watch a ballerina grow over time, this isn't a bad thing. Most seriously, Ms. Osipova made no attempt to get the “edge-of-the-bed” scene in Act III right. Instead of facing the audience throughout the scene, forcing her to show - and the audience to see - what is happening inside her head as her thoughts move from despair to hope, Ms. Osipova began the scene head down, and kept it there until just before the “light bulb” of recognition that Friar Laurence might be able to help is turned on. As a result, this manifestation of Juliet's thought process was hidden. This had to be a conscious decision - perhaps Ms. Osipova felt as if she hadn't gotten that scene “right” yet, and didn't want to show something that she knew wasn't yet ready for prime time. But whatever the reason, it was wrong. I'm sure it will be corrected over time, as will the “wind-ups” to some of the transitional phrases in MacMillan's choreography. While most of the transitions from one choreographic phrase to another were surprisingly smooth for a first performance, there were noticeable times when she clearly stopped for a split second in order to ready herself for the next phrase.

Aside from these flaws, Ms. Osipova's Juliet was a triumph, not only by giving the role the depth that any successful character portrayal requires, but by already putting her own unique stamp on the role.

Ms. Osipova has what appears to be a tiny face and an elfin smile that combine to make her look like a pixie. Consequently, and not surprisingly, Ms. Osipova's Juliet was the youngest-looking Juliet I can remember. But hers was also the youngest-acting Juliet I can remember - and she did it not just by appearing to be her pixieish self, but by acting up a small storm. Paris was not only the first young man who paid attention to her, which is a frequently seen characterization, but, based on Ms. Osipova's portrayal, he may have been the first young man she'd ever been allowed to see. Ms. Osipova would look at Paris with curiosity, her head engagingly angled to the side, as if thinking to herself:  “ that's what a boy is like...” This apparent adolescent awkwardness continues in Scene 3, after she encounters Romeo, where, with her head again slightly angled, she seems to be saying to herself:  'oh...that's a feeling I've never had before and it feels strange and wonderful.” My poor ability to translate Ms. Osipova's demeanor into words shouldn't diminish the significance of what she was able to display. Her Juliet was not just young and innocent and sweet and endearing - she was ready to soak up the life she was being exposed to like a sponge.

Like all great Juliets, Ms. Osipova's characterization evolved over the course of the ballet from that initial small storm into an emotional tempest. One of my pet peeves with Ms. Osipova to date has been her penchant for overacting, and particularly her reliance on unnecessary facial gestures as a substitute for displaying emotion in a more refined way. I expected her to overact as Juliet - it goes with the territory. But she didn't. At least until the conclusion of Act III, what I saw was a sublime dancer/actress doing what great dancer/actresses do - albeit with many more years of experience. At times I thought I was seeing Alessandra Ferri - with all the power and emotional depth that Ms. Ferri brought to this role. And at times I thought I was seeing the delicacy, lyricism and intensity that in my mind's eye is what Ms. Kirkland would have looked like.

But Ms. Osipova was indisputably herself. The passion, the willfulness, the vulnerability, were all there, and every step, every gesture, every expression, was true - true to her character, and true to Ms. Osipova's stage persona. Perhaps the images that will linger most in my mind arise from Ms Osipova's unique (to me) execution of MacMillan's choreography during Juliet's dance with Paris before she agrees to submit to the marriage. It is always danced dolefully, with extraordinary sadness at the thought of what she is being compelled to do. But for Ms. Osipova, it wasn't weepy. In this mini-scene, her Juliet isn't sad, or reluctant, or exhausted by the emotional struggle. Her Juliet dances lifelessly, having to be carried and pulled by Paris, at times draped over him, with only the most limited ability to stand or move on her own. As Ms. Osipova performs it, it is an anticipatory dance of death - and it also very obviously is a parallel to the 'dance of death' in the ballet's final scene, where Juliet is being lifelessly pushed and pulled and tossed and carried by Romeo. The concept, and the execution, were brilliant. And if nothing else was sufficient to convince this viewer that Ms. Osipova's performance was more than just a really, really good debut, that did.

And then there was the Scream that could be heard all the way back to Moscow. That's okay. She was entitled.

Curtain calls frequently seem to be as staged as the performances that precede them. But whether contrived or not, the curtain calls by Ms. Osipova and David Hallberg, her melancholy Romeo, were themselves almost worth the price of admission. Ms. Osipova seemed genuinely grateful to Hallberg for helping her get through the performance. But she appeared overwhelmed by the well-deserved adoration that the audience was collectively showering on her. You could almost see the 'wow' in her eyes as she looked out, apparently overwhelmed, at five tiers filled with people standing and cheering her performance, and feel her unrestrained appreciation as she blew a kiss to the audience (which, from my vantage point, filled every seat and standing room position in the house). If Ms. Osipova plays her cards right, and I have no doubt that she will, this is the beginning of a very long love affair with New York audiences. And - fair warning - if Ms. Osipova returns next year (and I suspect that ABT management will do whatever it needs to do to make sure that that happens), get tickets as soon as casting is announced or be prepared to have to hang from the chandeliers.

To those who felt that the limited opportunities to dance Juliet should have been given to deserving dancers already on the company roster rather than to a guest artist - and I was one of them - it's time to get over it. While she still has considerable maturing to do as an artist, Ms. Osipova is clearly a ballerina whose performances are events that are too important, and too precious, to miss.

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