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Festival review: Two Feet

Adelaide Festival

Artistic perfection requires total dedication, mental as well as physical. For some performers – as Meryl Tankard’s captivating dance work Two Feet shows – the pursuit of greatness comes at a high price.

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Meryl Tankard first performed Two Feet, her full-length solo work created in collaboration with her partner, photographer and visual artist Regis Lansac, in 1988. This year’s Adelaide Festival program features an exclusive season of a new production of Tankard’s signature piece.

Two Feet tells the story of renowned Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtseva, whose intense perfectionism drove her to obsessive torment. Interwoven with Spessivtseva’s story are abstracted elements of Tankard’s early years as a dancer.

Performed now by famed Russian prima ballerina Natalia Osipova, this new version of the work also incorporates episodes from Osipova’s own life experiences as a young dance student in Russia. The show has been reimagined to match the talents of Osipova, famous (as was Spessivtseva) for her interpretation of Giselle’s peasant girl.

Olga Spessivtseva toured Australia in 1934 as a dancer with the Dandre-Levitoff Russian Ballet. The tour, at first successful, did not end well. The dancer’s perfectionism and fixation with her technique appears to have precipitated a breakdown, with the deterioration of her mental state resulting in extended hospitalisation and the end of her ballet career.

Two Feet is constructed as 19 short scenes, each depicting moments from one of the two intertwining narratives. Humour and horror intermingle to reveal the gruelling demands placed (by themselves and their teachers) on dancers.

In a Christmas scene, Osipova is torn between enjoying the traditional feast and taking extreme measures to keep her weight down. Other scenes capture the tedium of hours spent at the barre monotonously repeating dance moves. There’s the eventual numbness to pain and the incredible flexibility achieved after years of practice. We see Osipova’s leg tied to the bedhead while she sleeps (to improve her stretching capacity) and hear the taunts of an instructor who dismisses her pupil with derogatory remarks about her dancing style.

Regis Lansac’s visual design is integral to the comprehension of the work. Projections on four large frames at the rear of the stage set the scene but also show photographs of Spessivtseva at the height of her fame. We’re given a glimpse of a very young Osipova in dance class (via film footage shot by her father) already demonstrating extraordinary talent. Dianne Bridson’s costume designs are exquisite and essential as a means of characterisation.

Moscow-born Natalia Osipova, who was a soloist and then principal with the Bolshoi Ballet before joining London’s Royal Ballet in 2013, is regarded as a “superstar” of the dance world.

In Two Feet, she must repeatedly shift between roles and contemporary and classical dance styles; a difficult task for any dancer but especially demanding as the show’s sole performer. She handles this beautifully.

Her scenes as a young dancer are joyful, and are the most expressive and engaging elements of the first act. In her final scenes as Olga, she collapses again and again, her anguished, frantic movements highlighted by the splashing of the water that pools beneath her feet.

Two Feet offers a fragmented but captivating portrayal of the true cost of a dance career and the lengths travelled by those who seek to achieve greatness.

Two Feet is at the Dunstan Playhouse until March 5, with all performances sold out. Meryl Tankard has also created Zizanie, a dance work for Adelaide’s Restless Dance Theatre, which will have its premiere at the Festival from March 14. See more Festival stories and reviews here.

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