By Irene Kukota and Natasha Butterwick.
Natalia Osipova, Principal Dancer of the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, needs no special introduction. She joined the Company as a Principal in autumn 2013, after appearing as a Guest Artist the previous Season as Odette/Odile in the Swan Lake with Carlos Acosta. Her roles with the Company include classical interpretations of Giselle, Kitri (Don Quixote), Sugar Plum Fairy (The Nutcracker), Princess Aurora (The Sleeping Beauty), Lise (La Fille mal gardée), Tatiana (Onegin), Manon, etc. and contemporary role creations in such ballets, as Christopher Wheeldon’s Strapless (Amélie Gautreau), Wayne McGregor’s Tetractys and Woolf Works, and Alastair Marriott’s Connectome. Every time she appears onstage, the critics praise her originality and fierce dance intelligence. The most frequent epithets are “virtuoso”, “thrilling”, “sensational” and “brilliant”. Whatever Natalia does, she does it with abandonment, dedication and 100 per cent concentration. She is also the recipient of such prestigious international awards as Golden Masks for her performances in In the Upper Room (2008) and La Sylphide (2009), Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards (Best Female Dancer, 2007, 2010 and 2014) and a Benois de la Danse Award (Best Female Dancer, 2008).
We met at the ROH after the ballerina’s long Saturday rehearsal. Whilst most of us would have collapsed after the strain, Natalia kindly agreed to continue with our long and rather detailed interview.
Irene Kukota: Natalia, how did you become a ballerina? As far as I understand, you were first trained as a gymnast …
Natalia Osipova: To be honest, this was my parents’ idea to send me to the ballet school after my gymnastics training. It was them who wanted it, (probably even more than myself). And I see nothing strange here: it is quite typical that children switch from sport to ballet. They have an advantage of having received a good training and arrive well-prepared. After all, one can start doing sports at the age of four or five, while serious ballet training starts at a much later age.
Natasha Butterwick: And now, do they support you or come to visit you here?
Natalia Osipova: Yes, my mother, in particular. She comes to almost all my performances, and this is very encouraging: it is much more pleasant to dance when you know that there is your loved one sitting in the audience.
IK: How did it happen that you were invited to dance at the Bolshoi Theatre after completing the Moscow State Academy of Choreography? And why did you leave the theatre so suddenly afterwards?
I studied at the Moscow State Academy of Choreography and on graduating immediately entered the corps of the Bolshoi Theatre. At that time the amazing Alexei Ratmansky was at its helm. He very early promoted me to the principal. Almost in my first and second years at the Bolshoi, I began to dance the leading parts. Thus, my career took off very early and very quickly. And then my international career followed immediately after.
I was invited to New York, Milan, Paris and to almost all the leading dance companies in the world. So, at some point, having danced almost everything what the repertoire of the Bolshoi could offer, I wanted to develop further. Unfortunately, being somewhat typecast, I was not given the new roles, I wished to perform. And this became the crucial go-ahead moment: I had so many invitations, so much work and so many things I wished to explore and embrace, that leaving seemed to be the only available solution. Obviously, it was a big life-changing decision, and it was very difficult to part with the Bolshoi Theatre, but I had to do this in order to move on.
N.B.: Challenging! And then you joined the ROH Covent Garden?
No, it was not the Covent Garden that I joined immediately after. I first received the invitation from the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. However, our partnership lasted for about a year and a half: I did not live in St.Petersburg, I would simply arrive, rehearse, perform and leave. It was the time when I was, literally, crisscrossing the globe: I had many contracts and a lot of work in New York, in Milan at La Scala; I even went to perform in Australia.
Then one day I had a call from the Covent Garden and was invited to perform in the Swan Lake as a guest artist. So, I arrived to London and stayed for two month here. And for the first time in my life I began to think that this was the only place (the ROH and its ballet troupe) where I would loved to stay. To my surprise, I felt very much at home here, and it was a new wonderful sensation to be aware of. And, miraculously, very soon after these performances the director of the Royal Ballet Kevin O’Hare invited me to join the Royal Ballet, and I immediately agreed without hesitation. And this is how I stayed in London.
N.B.: Which was very lucky for all of us, Londoners. You were a breath of fresh air. Someone who was instantly noticed and praised: the reviews were wonderful.
Well, even now when it is no longer new, I am very happy to have my own audience who loves me.
You danced Kitri with such temperament and abandon! Such charge of emotional energy!
Well, I even used to topple over onstage because of this energy which was brimming over. It is happening less now but at some point I had a really bad fall while dancing Kitri in Don Quixote here at the ROH. I even could not continue the performance afterwards. The intensity of emotions was so great that I simply could not contain it.
I do not know whether I am temperamental or not, but I believe that the artists who have their own strong internal core must always follow their character and their inner self. And this is exactly what makes one special, unlike anyone else. I do not really like it when people attempt to “sanitize” or “smooth out” my performance by pointing out to me how it should look, or how I should feel.
While working on my character, I would always ask: “Show me the movements, tell me everything about the character”. I will always take up the cues and perhaps, after some searching, will find these qualities in myself. However, when it comes to getting into the character and the energy it represents, the emotional charge it carries, I must do my own work, because I will never look convincing or natural, if the role is forced upon me.
Please, do not get me wrong. I genuinely love comments, I very often take criticism into consideration. For instance, if someone comments that something was overdone, I would then be more reserved, if I agree with this remark. I love constructive comments, but not the ones when I am being told about my heroine, e.g. Juliet: “She can not be like this or that!” In this case, my first reaction is: “Why can not she be like this?” Well, Juliet, who is a lyrical character, can not be so impetuous”. At this point my reply was: “Yes, but she is a a lyrical and dramatic character who takes courageous decisions and acts boldly. And this is why she can be impulsive, even mad”. However, I do not like such arguments and would not listen to such remarks. It is true that my roles were consistent with who I am and I have been mostly playing myself. And I am absolutely not ashamed to acknowledge this. Maybe I am not an actress, maybe I am a bad actress, but there is a great deal of my own self in my characters.
N.B.: And then do you watch and analyse your performances afterwards on the video?
Of course. I often film even the rehearsals. And the performances are frequently filmed, so that you could view them afterwards. Sometimes I get frustrated, sometimes I do not. Sometimes, the result may even surpass my expectations: “Oh, excellent, what a surprise!” However, there also happen the performances which I expect to have been excellent but which turn out to be underwhelming. I am very critical of myself. Simply put, the more I dance, the more I like to get the pleasure out of the process. Still, I approach the Royal Ballet and its traditions with great reverence. I do care about the accuracy of my choreography. And it is only after the technique is honed and precise, and the performance is accurate, that I can start working on my interpretation of the character.
Is it hard to live in London? Or you are you happy with the theatre and with what the city can offer?
Well, it was difficult at first and I needed to adapt, find my own social circle. However, I had a wonderful relationship with everyone in the troupe. They treated me very kindly. I have friends and colleagues. Still, I would not say that we are close enough to be meeting elsewhere outside working hours. I would rather say that I am more on my own.
Now I mostly live in London. I even reduced the number of my guest contracts, because I do very much like the repertoire of the Royal Ballet. Still, when I am offered to perform something I am interested in and wish to explore, then I would take the opportunity and dance in other theatres. I cannot stay for long in one place, I must get inspiration. So far it works fine, because now I have the whole team with assistants. This year, I am performing a solo programme at Sadler’s Wells for the second time, and am working on some theatre projects, planned for next season.
N.B.: Are they contemporary?
I would say, neo-classical or rather a mixture of contemporary dance, drama and dance – the ones I am genuinely interested in. This is something I had wanted myself to do for a long time: to collaborate, to jointly create something while at the same time continuing to dance the leading classical repertoire in a major theatre.
And how do you manage to combine all this? At the moment you are a prima of two theaters: Covent Garden and the Perm theatre. And just the thought of long flights makes me terrified.
This is why, to my great regret, I rarely perform in Perm. I really love this theatre: the directors and the troupe are simply amazing. I would love to dance there more often, but alas, this does not seem to work out at the moment, because of the long haul flights and lack of time. I have a very tight schedule in London at the moment: lots of rehearsals and the pressure to meet all the demands. However, I hope to be able to travel there more often. So far, I managed to give only one performance there this season.
N.B.: And is this the same situation with the Bolshoi Theatre, as well?
Yes, the same. Again, it is because of the repertoire, tight schedule and the lack of time. Since I left the theatre, I have only danced there twice. For some reason, it does not seem to work.
How did you find your own circle of friends in London?
London has now become close and dear to me, it is my current home, where I have been living for four years. I like summer and spring here. It all seems very pleasant to me. It also seems to have an interesting Russian community here. I first of all mean the people I meet and keep in contact with. Overall, it seems that London is a magnet for dance and arts professionals from all over the world.
Does this mean that you can follow the newest trends in choreography and art by going to interesting performances?
If we talk of art and dance productions, then definitely yes. London is the place with the discerning public which honours and appreciates the old classical traditions in everything, even when it comes to the theatre repertoire, and yet, the public which is open to everything new, edgy, contemporary. This is why a lot is happening here in all art genres. If we just talk of the dance, look how the whole world celebrates the choreographers who premiere their works here. Therefore, yes: London is a taste maker and trend setter. Undoubtedly, one of the major art centres.
And how did you get to know Dina Korzun and her circle? What made you participate in the activities of the Gift of Life charitable foundation?
Yes, we became very close friends with Dina, I really love and respect her. She and her husband are an amazing couple. We met very unexpectedly, it was three years ago. I was flying from London to Moscow, to a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre, and was frantically learning my part while watching the video on my iPad. Whilst Dina was reading quite intensely something interesting. That was how we both became aware that we were engrossed into something. And we eventually became curious about what it actually was and ended up in conversation. This way I realised who she was, because I knew of her as an actress. And she, in her turn, heard of me as a ballet dancer. She even knew that I had been invited by the foundation to give a speech, at which point she exclaimed: ‘Oh, yes, so that was you!’ And so, this is how our friendship started. And then we came up with a lot of ideas and projects – or it is rather she who comes up with them — and I am always more than willing to help and support her. And I am very happy that such people exist in my life.
N.B.: Yes, and it turned out very well on January 13 at the Russian Old New Year charity Gala to benefit the Gift of Life at the Savoy Hotel. You made an interesting improvisation.
Yes, we danced with Sergey Polunin. It was very nice to come and help. We could not have even imagined that the evening would be so lively and we would practically end up dancing there.
To be continued.