Interview: Natalia Osipova

Natalia Osipova. Picture: Contributed
Natalia Osipova. Picture: Contributed
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A rare treat is in store as Natalia Osipova tackles contemporary themes, writes Kelly Apter

Watching Natalia Osipova perform classical ballet, it’s almost as if the pointe shoes are part of her body. So assimilated is she to the style, it’s hard to imagine her doing anything else.

But on a rainy July night in London, that’s exactly what I’m seeing. The Russian dancer, a former principal with the Bolshoi and current principal with the Royal Ballet, is on stage dancing in socks, bare feet and high heels.

Not only that, the tutus and character dresses synonymous with Osipova’s roles in Swan Lake or Giselle have been replaced with three-quarter length trousers, black jeans and a beehive wig. In short, it’s Osipova, but not as we know her.

Bringing together three of the biggest names in contemporary choreography, Natalia Osipova and Guests is a chance for festival audiences to see this stunning ballet dancer dip her perfectly poised toe into fairly unchartered waters.

A brief sojourn into contemporary dance in Solo for Two in 2014, saw Osipova dance in works by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Arthur Pita. So when it came to assembling a team to work on her new show, they were the first people she called.

“I really liked working with them and was very inspired by their work,” says Osipova. “I think it’s quite important to keep working with the same people, because they get to know you, they know what they can find inside you and how to drag it to the surface. So I was very keen to work with them both again.”

With Cherkaoui and Pita in place, Osipova knew exactly who she wanted to complete the triple bill. A man who himself was classically trained at the Royal Ballet School, has choreographed all over the world, and who created an Oliver Award-winning dance piece for Sylvie Guillem: Russell Maliphant.

“I saw Russell working with Sylvie and was really impressed,” says Osipova. “And I’ve seen him dancing and choreographing and am very inspired by the way he does it all. I was extremely happy to have the chance to ask him to join us as well.”

The feeling was mutual. All three choreographers are united in their admiration for Osipova, not just her physical capacity but her artistry and open-mindedness.

Cherkaoui speaks of Osipova having “an incredible skill set and an incredible body, but most of all an incredible mind”. Maliphant describes her as having “excellent strength, articulation and precision, but more than that the capability to be very classical and very modern at the same time,” while Pita talks about her “very special mixture of vulnerability and immense strength. She can access so much emotionally, and you can give her anything and she’ll figure out a way to make it work.”

As you would expect, the three men responded to Osipova’s body, and what it can do, in very different ways.

Cherkaoui choreographed a fascinating and intense trio with contemporary dancers Jason Kittelberger and James O’Hara. Maliphant created a passionate duet for Osipova and Ukraine ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, while Pita placed the dancer, known for her superb character acting, in a piece of pure dance theatre.

Switching between such extreme works would be difficult for any dancer, let alone one who is new to contemporary dance.

“All three parts require different things, different skills,” says Osipova. “So it was really difficult, because each choreographer uses their own choreographic language, and you have to switch from one to another after 20 minutes, and have a different focus.

“But the more I danced the programme, the more I understood the choreography, the more totally immersed I became, and the better I danced each part.”

For Osipova, Cherkaoui’s piece Qutb was the hardest to master, and it’s easy to see why. Three dancers moving as one body, support each other in an unknown landscape that feels post-apocalyptic. Plus throughout rehearsals, Osipova was very aware that she was the odd one out.

“Jason and James are fantastic dancers, and have been dancing contemporary practically since they were children – it’s their life,” she says. “But my style is completely different. I’m a classically trained ballet dancer, so it was natural for them, not so natural for me.

“But then I thought to myself, I shouldn’t be just like them, I shouldn’t just repeat what they’re doing – I should be myself.”

The result is a mix of bodily movement that at times feels complementary, other times in tune. The trio works as a whole, but Osipova does indeed put her own stamp on it, just as she’d intended.

“The most interesting thing for me is the

marriage of styles when two contemporary dancers meet a classical dancer,” says Osipova. “To see how our bodies, which have been trained so differently, perform together.

“And the wonderful thing is we didn’t try to merge, for all three of us to become contemporary dancers – I stayed a classical ballet dancer. But we showed off our individuality, our own set of skills. That was our aim, not to clone each other.”

There was no such challenge in Maliphant’s Silent Echo, which Osipova performs with Sergei Polunin – another classically trained dancer, and widely revered as one of the finest of his generation.

Both dancers are well used to the traditional pas de deux structure in narrative ballets, which follow the format of duet, solo, solo, duet. In Silent Echo, Maliphant repeats this set-up, but with contemporary choreography. An interesting twist which gives both dancers a chance to shine, with Polunin’s powerful leaps and Osipova’s lightning-fast spins hinting at, but not duplicating, their classical work.

For audiences, seeing these two powerhouses of classical ballet together on the stage is a rare treat – but so too for Osipova.

“We haven’t danced together much before,” she says, “just a few times. And of course Sergei is one of the best ballet dancers in the world, so it was really great to dance with him.”

Happily for Osipova, Pita also paired the duo together, only far differently. Run Mary, Run closes the evening in a way that will surprise many Osipova fans. A piece of darkly comic dance theatre, inspired in part by the relationship between Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil, Pita’s work is a homage to destructive love that just won’t die.

Set to the ‘death discs’ of 1960s girl group The Shangri-Las, Run Mary, Run finds Polunin in James Dean mode, all slicked back hair and leather jacket, while Osipova is variously a naïve teenage girl and a grieving widow. He woos her, she falls in love; he shoots up, she pulls him back from the brink.

With numerous costume changes and a stage populated by cigarettes and alcohol, it’s a far cry from Sleeping Beauty.

“I don’t try to look beautiful or proper,” says Osipova. “If I have to cry, I cry. If I have to run, I run. And if I have to look ugly, I do that as well

“I think the way I look is quite shocking for the public, because there is a lot of black, wine and cigarettes. But the main storyline isn’t about drugs and death, it’s about love – the deep love of a woman for a man, which stays with her after he has died.”

• Natalia Osipova and Guests is at the Festival Theatre, 12-14 August, 7:30pm

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