In 2009, Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova made her debut with American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in Giselle. In what turned out to be a lucky break, the dancer scheduled to partner her as Albrecht was injured and David Hallberg stepped into the role. The onstage chemistry between the two was electric – Hallberg  has said that the experience was “like an explosion” – and one of the most celebrated ballet partnerships of our time was born.

Osipova and Hallberg went on to dance together at ABT, The Royal Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet in works such as The Firebird, Romeo and Juliet and The Sleeping Beauty, their legendary partnership only growing in depth the more they danced together. So it was not surprising that Hallberg was the first dancer Osipova contacted when she began curating a program called Pure Dance – a mixed bill of solos and duets from classical ballet and contemporary dance, featuring several new works.

Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg in an excerpt from Anthony Tudor’s The Leaves are Fading in Pure Dance, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 2018, Photograph © Johan Persson

Hallberg immediately said yes. “To do a hand-curated program, and for us to meet together and decide what repertoire we wanted to dance together was a win-win situation,” the American dancer tells Limelight.

They first began talking about it around two years ago. “These things take a while to put together, schedule and curate, there are a lot of moving parts so it does take some time to really put together,” says Hallberg.

Produced by Sadler’s Wells, Pure Dance premiered at the London venue last year and had a season in New York in April this year. Now Sydney Opera House is presenting the program in the Drama Theatre from August 27 – 31.

Osipova and Hallberg are both legendary dancers. A former star at the Bolshoi Ballet and now a Principal of The Royal Ballet, Osipova is renowned for her superlative technique, her versatility, and her dazzling individuality. Earlier this year, she thrilled Australian audiences when she performed in Meryl Tankard’s Two Feet at the Adelaide Festival. American-born Hallberg, meanwhile, is known as a dancer of exceptional refinement. Described by The New York Times as “a paragon of classical style”, he has extraordinary feet which Deborah Jones, the dance critic for The Australian, vividly captured as having a “dramatic arch and superhuman articulation”. A Principle with ABT since 2006, Hallberg has been a Guest Star at the Bolshoi since 2011, and is a Resident International Artist at The Australian Ballet, where the medical team helped him recover from a debilitating ankle injury over an intense 14-month rehabilitation program in 2015/16.

Pure Dance is bookended by two duets featuring Osipova and Hallberg – a pas de deux from Anthony Tudor’s bittersweet 1975 ballet The Leaves Are Fading choreographed to music by Dvořák, and a new six-minute piece specially commissioned from Alexei Ratmansky choreographed to Sibelius’s Valse Triste.

Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg in Alexei Ratmansky’s Valse Triste in Pure Dance, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 2018. Photograph © Johan Persson

The program also includes a yearning original solo for Osipova by Japanese choreographer Yuka Oishi called Ave Maria, while Osipova dances with Jonathan Goddard in Flutter by Spanish choreographer Iván Pérez to music from Nico Muhly’s vocal collage Mothertongue, and Jason Kittelberger in Six Years Later by Israeli choreographer Roy Assaf. Hallberg meanwhile performs a brooding solo called In Absentia by Danish choreographer Kim Brandstrup to Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor.

Ratmansky is the first choreographer to create a duet on Osipova and Hallberg. A former Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Ballet (2004 – 2008), he has been Artist-in-Residence at American Ballet Theatre since 2009 and is well known to both dancers.

“We both have our own individual relationship with Alexei [developed] over many years,” says Hallberg. “He has been very formative in both our careers and I think it was an obvious choice [given] our relationship with him as a choreographer. I was in New York, and Alexei was in New York as well, so I proposed [the idea of] him creating something for the two of us and he immediately said yes.”

They began working on the piece in New York, meeting up again in Amsterdam while Ratmansky was working there to continue developing it. Hallberg says that before they went into the studio, Ratmansky presented the music to them. “It turns out that it was a piece of music that he had always wanted to choreograph for him and his wife [Tatiana Ratmanskaya] when they were dancers. So it was a piece of music that he really wanted to use for a long time, and he felt that it was appropriate to finally use it on Natasha and I,” says Hallberg (who refers to Osipova as Natasha).

Ratmansky, who created a new production of Cinderella for The Australian Ballet in 2013, is renowned for creating choreography that is classical with a slight twist. Reviewing Valse Triste, The Financial Times in the UK said: “Ratmansky, responding instinctively to both his music and his muse, celebrates Osipova’s speed and lightness but uses his Sibelius score to repurpose these qualities so that each flying leap into Hallberg’s waiting arms gives a sense of a woman bent on self-destruction.”

Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg in Alexei Ratmansky’s Valse Triste in Pure Dance, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 2018. Photograph © Johan Persson

The New York Times review said: “Finding fresh possibilities in Sibelius’s familiar Valse Triste, Mr Ratmansky tapped into the pair’s chemistry – and let it blossom. As Ms Osipova dove repeatedly with stormy abandon into Mr Hallberg’s arms, the two seemed to reach new heights of courage and trust.”

“It really epitomises our partnership, because I think one of the most interesting things about us dancing together is our opposition. She is very much made of fire and I’m very much made of water or more the earth. The opposites attract in a way, and Alexei created off that [using] her energy and me keeping her calm and grounded the entire time. It really showcases what our partnership is defined by,” says Hallberg.

Asked if he agrees that the ballet gives the woman a self-destructive quality, he says: “I don’t know about self-destructive but I think [Osipova] is a risk taker and that’s what makes her exciting because it makes her unpredictable. I think there is a quality that excites audiences and that’s also a quality that has attracted me to our partnership.”

As to their famous first onstage partnership in Giselle, did he sense immediately that this was something special? “I didn’t until we were on stage together actually,” he says. “We didn’t know each other and she didn’t speak any English, and so we couldn’t really communicate. But once we got on stage, we were both equally surprised at how electric it was and explosive and something we both had never experienced before in other partnerships.”

Hallberg describes the solo In Absentia that he performs in Pure Dance as a “very intimate” piece. “It revolves around [the dancer’s] mental images of a past relationship. And it’s a bit of a chamber piece in a way, where I’m feeling the music the entire time, and in a sense a bit voyeuristic. The audience is never brought directly into the solo, they watch it the whole time. In my opinion, it’s being viewed in a private room, an intimate space, so it’s a very intimate, private solo.”

David Hallberg

Given the close relationship that he has developed with The Australian Ballet, and Australian audiences, Hallberg says that coming to Australia with Pure Dance felt “like a given”.

Discussing his injury and the slow, two-and-a-half-year recovery process, which was almost certainly made longer and more difficult because of his decision to have surgery, Hallberg admits that the experience changed him as a person and a dancer.

“I think it was more the rehabilitation than the actual injury that changed me. I made most of the progress and change in Melbourne [at TAB]. I came back to dancing and I’m back at full-steam, which is amazing, but it made me come to terms with my mortality as a dancer. I’m enjoying the ride I’m on right now, it’s a lot of work [and] I’m very dedicated, but I do feel a higher calling and I’m not scared of the next steps after my dancing career, because it came very close [to ending]. And there’s a lot more fish to fry in a sense. I feel a calling to really do service to this art form and take what I’ve learnt not just through the injury, the rehab and what I went through, but also what I’ve been able to experience [as a dancer] all around the world.”

He says that running a ballet company one day “certainly feels like that’s the direction I’m headed in. I do feel a very inspired inclination to nurture the younger generation, and to really nurture audiences as well from the repertoire that I’ve witnessed throughout the world. I do feel like I’ve been fortunate to gain a lot of experience in Russia, in England, in New York, Japan and all over the world,” he adds. ” There’s going to come a time where the spotlight goes off me and goes on to other dancers, and I really would like to reward them with the experience that I’ve garnered.”

Pure Dance plays in the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 27 – 31