Many Giselles, but Only One Osipova

Posted May 21, 2018 8:26 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — In 2009, Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova made an immediate sensation with her debut at American Ballet Theatre, dancing the title role of “Giselle” with David Hallberg as her partner. The explosiveness of her jumps, the intensity of her acting, the keen focus with which she heightened the significance of Giselle’s relationships with every other character all made powerful impressions.

As a principal of Ballet Theater up to 2013, she danced many other roles with the company, including two that were created for her by Alexei Ratmansky. Her technique proved stratospheric, her acting blazingly committed. Other remarkable European ballerinas shared the stage with her or alternated in the same roles. But no dancer was more exciting than Osipova.

Since then, her career has taken her elsewhere, chiefly as a principal of the Royal Ballet in London. Giselle remains her calling card. It brought her back to Ballet Theater in 2015 and again Friday. Hallberg was her Albrecht, as he has been in most of her Ballet Theater performances of “Giselle.”

The Metropolitan Opera House was sold out; other celebrated ballerinas were spotted in the audience. The final ovation was ecstatic and prolonged. Friday was also her birthday — and Hallberg’s. After many curtain calls, the audience sang “Happy Birthday” to them. (Hallberg returns for a few performances during this eight-week season, but Osipova does not.)

Osipova’s Giselle has changed and changed again in these years. Not since Natalia Makarova’s thousand-and-one ways of dancing “Swan Lake” 40 years ago have we seen a role given so many interpretations by one performer. On Friday, Osipova was more forlorn as the village girl of Act 1, more locked in Albrecht’s eyes, more evidently weak-hearted. Before the famous mad scene, you could see the pressure building in her mind as she watched all the gentry returning to the stage, all so well acquainted with the lover whom she had trustingly assumed was of the same peasant stock as herself.

In jumps, Osipova still bursts high into the air with astounding speed. But she often now experiments with classical line, sometimes leaving her arms by her sides rather than outstretched. The line of her neck seems to have gained a new upward force — though she also bends it with more expressive submissiveness.

As in that 2009 debut, on Friday she made intense connections to every other character in Giselle’s life — and those she encounters after death. She’s uninterested in making Giselle pretty or adorable; her brow is sometimes furrowed. No other Giselle today makes so clear a crucial plot point of Act 2: Once she has placed Albrecht in the sanctuary of the cross, safe from the vengeful wilis (whose nocturnal mission is to dance men to death), she wants him to remain there, and she herself then leaves it only against her will.

Osipova has become a more startlingly singular artist. Her resources seem only to grow; yet her stage manners have become only simpler and more direct. Hallberg, by contrast, has grown more conventional and more mannered. As Albrecht, he’s terribly gracious about being aristocratic, and in Act 2 he’s desperately martyred. At all times, he now lets us know he’s giving a performance; his business with his cloak on entry in each act is a special study in artfulness.

The great Albrechts of past “Giselles” leave the sanctuary of the cross because they cannot resist the heady alchemy of love and dance, and have even neared ecstasy as they felt exhaustion taking them. Hallberg now makes his virtuoso dances look like exercises in super-elegant suffering. Having loved the apparent selflessness with which he ascended to superstar status, I can’t help hoping he finds again the less self-conscious nobility that once made him so touching.

The story line of “Giselle” is so strong that it can prove just as engrossing with far less prestigious casts. And Ballet Theater needs this to be true, since this year it has dispensed with most of the guest stars who have often studded its spring seasons at the Met. Wednesday afternoon, when Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin played the two lead roles, was an occasion when the old ballet felt young again.

Lane’s combination of vulnerability and radiance has always been affecting, but some lack of confidence seemed to hold her back. Now she takes full possession of her roles. She’s fragile, detailed, musical — you care for her because she lives each moment so fully — and she takes to the air as if it were her element.

Though Simkin is a strangely elflike hero, his timing and commitment are terrific. There wasn’t a moment when they weren’t mutually responsive. No Albrecht in years has so purposefully filled the end of the taxing last solo; so when Giselle charges out of the wings into his arms, it was unusually clear that she was taking the strain from him at the very moment when he was about to collapse.

Both Misty Copeland and Herman Cornejo, on Tuesday, seemed out of shape in Act 1. She plays the role with warmth but in too generalized a manner. His characteristic ardor and heroism were, on this occasion, muted. Act 2 was altogether better from both, yet with no particular inspiration. Since she’s now among the biggest names in world ballet, it’s refreshing to see how unspoiled she is; but I wish her dancing had more sheer authority.

James Whiteside played Albrecht on Wednesday evening with the prodigious energy and personal force for which he’s known. He can now afford a greater suggestion of the aristocracy that Albrecht tries at first to hide. His interplay with Isabella Boylston, his Giselle, was full of moment-by-moment rapport. But while her fast, light, style and pale coloring have many beauties and strengths, they don’t command a Met audience. A fraction more eye makeup and greater use of dynamic contrasts might make her project twice as powerfully. She’s an important dancer, but not yet a grand-scaled one — and the Met space is vast.

Ballet Theater is the only company that plays this oversize opera house; as both actors and dancers, most of its performers would be suited to theaters half the size. Will the season’s seven remaining weeks solve this problem?