Natalia Osipova on creating a contemporary Carmen

Feted for her performances as a classical ballet dancer, Natalia Osipova has had to work for years to perfect her contemporary style. Ahead of the Edinburgh world premiere of her new take on Carmen, she tells Kelly Apter about the challenges of moving from one style to another

Natalia Osipova in Carmen PIC: Rick Guest

Natalia Osipova is that rare breed – a dancer whose body inhabits movement so completely, her heart and mind are free to concentrate solely on emotion. She doesn’t just play a role, she lives and breathes it, while her incredible technique comes along for the ride. When performing classical ballet, Osipova’s whirlwind pirouettes and weightless leaps have an undeniable wow factor in the moment, but it’s her ability to break your heart that you’ll remember most when you leave the theatre.

All of which means that her move from classical and contemporary dance has been seamless for fans, if not for the dancer herself.

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Soon to take the stage in Edinburgh, for the world premiere of an exciting new version of Carmen, the Russian dancer is full of ill-founded self-deprecation.

Didy Veldman with Natalia Osipova in rehearsals for Carmen PIC: Annabel Moeller

“The first time I tried it I didn’t feel great, mentally or physically,” she recalls. “I couldn’t snap my fingers and just change from classical ballet to contemporary. It’s not easy, because there is a specific feel to contemporary dance that you have to teach your body, to lower your movement, change your coordination – it’s so different from classical ballet.

“At times I would feel amazed and think ‘I can do it!’ – and then I would see a video of me dancing and it was horrible. But now, after I’ve been working with a lot of great contemporary choreographers for five or six years, I feel like I’m actually not bad – not great, but not bad.”

It’s hard to imagine Osipova doing anything “horrible”, on-stage or off – and most dancers would dream of being her version of “not bad”. Interviewing her alongside fiancée and fellow dancer Jason Kittelberger, she chats with boundless enthusiasm about her new project and the people it’s allowing her to work with. A pared down, entirely new take on Prosper Mérimée’s novella, Carmen will feature just five dancers – but it’s a genuine case of quality over quantity.

Osipova is taking time out from her job as principal at the Royal Ballet, as is English National Ballet principal Isaac Hernández, and they will be performing with Kittelberger – known for his work with some of the world’s finest contemporary dance choreographers – and emerging dance stars Hannah Ekholm and Eryck Brahmania. Acclaimed Dutch choreographer Didy Veldman was brought in to create the piece, which uses a similar structure to the “play within a play” format. So, while we’ll see the dancers perform the main roles of Carmen, Escamillo, Don José etc, we’ll also see them take on the role of actors and crew shooting a film, all set to a soundtrack that threads Bizet’s original score with newly composed music by Dave Price.

Natalia Osipova in rehearsals for Carmen PIC: Annabel Moeller

“Natalia and I talked about how she presents herself on stage and how she really feels when off stage,” says Veldman, “and how those two personalities, or aspects of her life, are very different. One is role-playing and one is how she truly is. I thought it would be interesting to see if we could share that truthfulness, that simplicity of who she is, in the show. So when we’re filming on stage, she depicts one character – and as soon as the filming stops, she depicts another character. And that’s the same for the whole cast.”

Osipova is in agreement. “For me, this is so interesting,” she says, “because people think you’re a ballet star, you must be like you are in Giselle or Don Quixote. But in my real life, I’m the complete opposite. I’m a very emotional person, an emotional artist, but I’m not so dramatic.”

Even Veldman, with all her years of experience, was unsure what it would be like working with Osipova and Hernández in rehearsal. “I was apprehensive about going into a studio with people who are big ballet stars,” she admits. “Would I be able to say to them ‘excuse me, that isn’t right’ or ‘I’m not happy with that’? But from day one there was never an issue. It was clear that we all respected each other’s choices, and it’s been such a pleasure. Whenever I’m in the studio with them, I come out buzzing.”

For Mexican dancer Hernández, who joined English National Ballet in 2015 after spells with San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, learning the dual characters of the film director and Escamillo the toreador has been a real treat. “Escamillo is usually very sure of himself and a bit arrogant,” he says. “But the beautiful thing about this version is he has two personalities. He’s this stereotypical egocentric character but he’s also the director trying to make things work for everyone, so you see a more day-to-day part of his personality. And I really like that because the movement is quite defined, his physicality is completely different depending on who he’s being, so it’s like playing two characters in one.”

The classical ballet repertoire is full of dramatic hand gestures and mimes that communicate everything from love to death. But in contemporary dance, you’re on your own – much to Hernández’s delight. “I enjoy storytelling and in the classical ballet vocabulary we have a particular structure with which to tell a story,” he says. “But I’ve always been curious about not relying so much on those literal things – I want to challenge myself and try to transmit the story through the physicality I apply to each step. There aren’t many contemporary works like Carmen being made that have a narrative, and it’s something that, as a dancer, you appreciate because it’s a challenge.”

Carmen starring Natalia Osipova has its world premiere performances at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on 17 & 18 December, https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/carmen#overview

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