Natalia Osipova’s specially commissioned programme of contemporary dance at Sadler’s Wells was an opportunity to see one of the greatest dancers of her generation in new works by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Russell Maliphant and Arthur Pita.

In Cherkaoui’s Qutb (meaning ‘axis’ or ‘pivot’), Osipova, Jason Kittelberger and James O’Hara experimented with ways of moving together, testing the limits of gravity and their contrasting techniques as they used their own weight to support, balance and counterpoise each other. Changes in the music, which included Sufi vocals, gave an episodic structure to a work so packed with possible interpretations that its meaning was ambiguous: suggestions in the programme included, among other ideas, the aftermath of a natural disaster, the interaction of celestial bodies, or a rite of passage. It was sometimes hard to see clearly the complex entwining movement of the dancers on the darkened stage; the work would benefit by being performed in a smaller and more intimate space.

Maliphant’s Silent Echo, danced by Osipova and Sergei Polunin, and strikingly lit by Michael Hulls, drew on the classical pas-de-deux format in which dancers dance together, then solo, and then together again. The work opened on a pitch black stage before a sequence of spotlights picked out, then blacked out, each dancer in turn, like images projected on a screen. The music, by Scanner, seemed to pulse through Osipova’s rhythmic chaînés, although Polunin’s solo to James Lavelle’s Trouble in Paradise was choreographically more interesting and offered him more scope as he flashed like a dragon fly across a honeycomb created in light on the surface of the stage.

The programme concluded with Pita’s Run Mary Run, a rambling narrative told in movement with dance, inspired by Amy Winehouse, but not, according to the programme notes, about her, even though Osipova’s hair was pinned up in a pastiche of Winehouse’ style. After a promisingly theatrical opening, in which Osipova seemed to emerge from a grave, there were suggestions in the shifting narrative of aspects of Winehouse’ life (of drug addiction and a destructive personal relationship, for example), while the work picked a precarious path between cultural references and clichés. Pita comments in the programme notes that he felt that Winehouse was a strong woman, but Osipova’s role was that of a manipulated victim. In one scene, wearing a frilly skirt, she sat on a swing while Polunin pushed and spun her to and fro, the embodiment of ambivalence, vulnerability and dependency. It is interesting to consider how Matthew Bourne might have handled the work’s narrative and told a story, or how Jasmin Vardimon might have addressed its subject matter.

It takes a big star with a huge stage presence and skilled collaborators to pull off a programme such as this one, and the applause acknowledged the achievement. Osipova’s appetite to embrace new work and different dance genres when she is probably not yet at the peak of her classical ballet career is exciting, but at no point in the evening did she emerge as a contemporary dancer. It remains to be seen whether all three works will live on unmodified, without her dramatic theatrical personality to carry them.

Maggie Watson

3 July 2016