Osipova and Vasiliev: A trip to the moon on gossamer wings

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev don’t just dance Don Quixote at a level of perfection we seldom, if ever, see.

They relish it, play with it, soar over the tricky bits of choreography, laugh at the technical challenges – what challenges? – and emerge victorious as they finally conquer the glamour-plus grand pas de deux of Act III.

As the naughty Kitri and mischievous Basilio the Russians took Saturday night’s audience along for a glorious ride.

As Cole Porter wrote:

It was just one of those nights

Just one of those fabulous flights

A trip to the moon on gossamer wings…

Guesting with the Australian Ballet in Melbourne, the Russian couple gave the audience what they came to see from the moment Osipova bounded onto the stage in one of her trademark, super-human jetes.

Vasiliev, in turn, soared from the wings in a jump so high he might have been wearing a jet propelled wings.

It wasn’t all about the big effects. The Russians know how to enhance their obvious technical superiority with character detail.

Osipova was a foxy young woman, very determined and prone to the occasional dummy spit, while Vasiliev was a devil-may-care lover whose goofy boyishness only added to his charm.

They both danced with exhilarating attack, speed and fearlessness in the way they navigated some of the most difficult moments of Nureyev’s production.

Those moments were not only the turns and the big jumps but also the fiddly bits of fast footwork that Nureyev called ‘knitting’ and liked so much, perhaps too much.

Vasiliev is relatively short and his height, combined with his powerful, muscular thighs allow him to soar so high that instead of dancing just an ordinary old cabriole or double tour en l’air he likes to add an array of complex tricks, like criss crossing his legs in a tour.

As for his turns, he is able to begin and end his multiple turns in a way that even makes other dancers gasp.

Although Osipova moves at tremendous speed she retains a clear line when she dives into the diagonale turns as she sweeps past a row of enchanted matadors or holds her pose in the arabesque in the air as Vasiliev lifts her with one arm.

In Act I she wore soft pointe shoes but in Act III she needed harder shoes for her superfast retires and an extraordinary sequence of fouettes and pirouttes in the grand pas coda.

The technical skills of all professional ballet dancers increase incrementally year upon year but their major physical achievements seem to take a big leap about every 10 years.

Osipova, 26, and Vasiliev, 23, formerly with the Bolshoi Ballet, but now based at the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St Petersburg, represent that leap, one that in their case began around 2007.

It’s hard to believe they could push beyond the technical excellence they’ve achieved right now and impossible to imagine how the next generation will surpass their achievements. (But they will, just as elite athletes always go faster and higher).

Don Q is a favourite of the Australian Ballet and older members of the audience can still see in their mind’s eye some of the dancers they most admired in the past.

Among them are Steven Heathcote, one of the most lovable Basilios of recent years.

In this Australian Ballet season he is back in Don Q playing the Don himself.

His interpretation is sincere, honest and true to the character of the deluded Don – not a bumbling old fool but a man with whom we can empathise in his search for perfection.

I also admired Matthew Donnelly’s very camp and funny Gamache, Frank Leo’s googly-eyed Sancho Panza, Francis Croese’s Lorenzo, Chengwu Guo’s virtuosic Gypsy Boy, Kitri’s Friends, Ako Kondo and Reiko Hombo (who also danced the mercurial Amour) and the elegant Amber Scott as the Queen of the Dryads.

Don Quixote often trots onto the stage like a tired old donkey but last Saturday it leapt back to life like a thoroughbred.

Osipova and Vasiliev will give their second and final guest performance with the Australian Ballet this evening, 18 March.

The Melbourne season will continue until 26 March. The Sydney season runs from 5 to 24 April.