Friday, 13 March 2015

Natalia Osipova

Natalia Osipova talk, Ballet Association, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church - 11th March
Natalia Osipova, Royal Ballet principal (and my favourite ballerina), was the guest of the Ballet Association on Wednesday. In a fascinating interview, in which she spoke in her native Russian, she explored her extraordinary career - from dreaming of being a doctor to critical acclaim and even breaking Carlos Acosta’s nose! 
Natalia Osipova in Giselle
Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH
Osipova grew up in a "simple family, without ballet or art". She did gymnastics for four years but then had to stop due to injury: "It was a big tragedy as I wanted to be Olympic champion. My parents sent me to ballet school and it was again a tragedy as I didn't want to do it."
Osipova found ballet easy and was "so bored" that her teachers complained she was always looking out of the window! At the age of 12, she left ballet school for three months to go into mainstream education with dreams of becoming a doctor. When she returned to ballet school, she felt like she "really started dancing" as her class performed a Russian dance in a gala at the Bolshoi Theatre. The experience inspired a lifelong love for being onstage: "I love performing. The energy coming from an audience feels great. It's the most important part of my profession. We work so hard – feeling the appreciation is why we do it. Ballet and preparing roles has become part of my life, without which I cannot live.”
In her final year at ballet school, teachers advised Osipova that the Bolshoi Ballet wouldn't be interested in her, as she was very small and had an "unusual energy". Fortunately the company's directorship changed just as she was graduating. She performed a Spanish character dance for the new director Alexei Ratmansky, and "put so much into it" that he said “you have to join the Bolshoi”. She joined the company in the corps de ballet and had her first major role as Kitri in Don Quixote:
“I was really good in the role. The Bolshoi’s Don Quixote suits me as it has so much energy. It suits my nature. But people thought that if I did Kitri so well, I couldn't do other roles. When I asked to do Giselle or La Sylphide, people thought I was mad. No one thought I could do lyrical parts.”
Ratmansky had a difficult time at the Bolshoi as the company had set traditions and he wanted to do more modern choreography. Older dancers refused to perform in his ballets, so he worked with younger dancers, including Osipova: “His term at the Bolshoi was a fight, but people respected him for not compromising. I was one of the dancers who loved his work so he always chose me for his choreography. At 19, he trusted me to dance Kitri in London. I remember the audience response and will never forget it.”
Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Don Quixote
Photo: the Mikhailovsky Ballet
Eventually Osipova was allowed to branch out with roles, starting with Giselle: “Ratmansky approached me, said ‘we should do something different’ and offered Giselle. Of course, I immediately said yes. It was very hard preparing the role and I had conflicts with my teacher. I wanted to do something different and Moscow is so conservative.”
Shortly after, the directorship of the Bolshoi changed again and the new director didn’t cast Osipova as Giselle. “But I was invited to do Giselle with American Ballet Theatre in New York and the reviews were so good that the director let me do it again. My life at the Bolshoi was not simple but that’s why I’m so strong. The Bolshoi is my favourite home.”
Having now danced in many different productions of Giselle, Osipova’s preferred version is Peter Wright’s: “At my stage in life, it suits me the most. There is so much tension to the role and it’s the best I can act onstage. It feels very natural. I can show what I feel.” Osipova now has this English approach to the ballet and felt like an “alien” when recently guesting with Steven McRae in Giselle at the Bolshoi:
“The peasants and actors didn’t expect Steven to interact with them onstage. They are used to sitting and watching and were shocked that principals were approaching them. Even my [onstage] mother couldn’t understand what I did. I was looking into her eyes and she said ‘I don’t know what you are trying to say’. She thought I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Osipova performed many other roles at the Bolshoi but has fondest memories of dancing Flames of Paris with Ivan Vasiliev, and the opening night of Johan Kobborg’s La Sylphide. As for why she left the company, it’s a “difficult question”. After Ratmansky left, she didn’t get many new roles. “Everything changed. It didn’t become better or worse – just very different. It was our [Osipova and her onstage and real-life partner of the time, Vasiliev] decision to try something new, so we accepted the Mikhailovsky Ballet’s proposal.”
Natalia Osipova and Carlos Acosta in Swan Lake
Photo: Alice Pennefather / ROH
Osipova performed with the Mikhailovsky for two years, during which time she also guested around the world. In 2012, she performed Swan Lake with Carlos Acosta at the Royal Ballet and then was invited by Kevin O’Hare to join the company full-time. “It wasn’t easy to accept the proposal at the Royal Ballet. I was quite happy to travel and dance everywhere. But I was tired of not being settled and I loved London very much.
“Carlos is a fantastic partner. With just one finger he can lift you. He taught me a lot and I’m so thankful to him. But things didn't start well - in our second rehearsal, I broke his nose! I was spinning very fast and I don’t like to be helped by my partner. He was trying to help me and came very close. I elbowed him and suddenly he was covered in blood. I thought of running away back to Russia. It was very scary as blood was everywhere. But Carlos was laughing and saying ‘you’re so small but you broke my nose’.
“After accepting the contract, my first impressions of London were quite awful. I came from La Scala and had four suitcases. I felt very lonely and lost in the airport. But I pulled myself together and came to the theatre. I didn’t expect the warm reception. Everyone helped me and was so nice and so supportive. I’m living the best time of my life. The company is my family. I have many friends.”
Prior to joining the Royal Ballet, Osipova had always lived with parents, Vasiliev or in hotels, but in London, she was given her own apartment: “I’d never lived by myself. I didn’t know the language and didn’t know how to pay for gas, electricity or anything. At the same time, I had to tune myself to the style of the company. I was trying my best not to show my Russian training and adopt the English style. I watched so many ballet recordings. In this profession, you always have to learn.”
As well as performing the classics, Osipova has danced in several new works with the Royal Ballet, including Wayne McGregor’s Tetractys. “McGregor’s choreography is wonderful. I can relax from the classical technique and do what my body wants to do.” She has, however, been rather accident-prone and suffered several onstage injuries, including falling over during Don Quixote and being unable to complete the performance: “Accidents are part of the profession. We are not robots, we are people. Sometimes my mum says they happen to me too often. I have too much energy and can’t always control it!”
Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding in Onegin
Photo: Tristram Kenton / ROH
One of the things Osipova loves about the Royal Ballet is the quality of partnering: “The amazing thing about the company is the attitude to the ballerina. It’s very caring. Partners ask me ‘is it comfortable for you?’. That’s never happened to me before.  With previous partners, it’s just been ‘come, rehearse, finish’, but here they want to help and do the best for the ballerina.”
Osipova has worked with many of the Royal Ballet’s male dancers, but has recently been paired with Matthew Golding in The Dream and Onegin. “He’s helped me and taught me so much. I now feel like I can express anything onstage because he’s always there. Onegin is very difficult. There are lots of technical supports and if your partner doesn't lift you correctly, you can’t act and be young.”
Last year, Osipova performed alongside Vasiliev in a bill of modern choreography entitled Solo for Two. “I wanted to do something radically different and I thought ‘what has impressed me recently?’. That’s how I chose the three choreographers. I don’t think it’s the best we could have achieved as we didn’t have much time, but the final part of [Arthur Pita’s] Facada – dancing on Ivan’s grave [a table with him lying underneath] – was amazing. The energy was something you can’t have in classical dance. When I started doing it, Ivan was scared – he’d never been scared so much in his life!
“I love performing modern choreography. It’s so important to have a classical and modern mix. I’m negotiating for a solo programme at Sadler’s Wells next summer, dancing with partners that the choreographers choose. “
Having come from a full day of “very tiring” rehearsals for The Four Temperaments, Woolf Works and Swan Lake, Osipova clearly felt – though didn’t look – exhausted. “At the same time, this is my favourite job and I’m happy to be so busy. When I ring my mum and complain about how tired I am, she says ‘but you love it – you don’t want to clean floors!’. All these roles I’m doing – Juliet, Manon, Tatiana – I dreamed of them, and now I’m dancing them.”

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