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Natalia Osipova
Bolshoi Ballet

interview by Ian Palmer




© John Ross

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During the summer of 2006, the Bolshoi Ballet made a historic trip to London. Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its first Western tour, the company and its Director, Alexei Ratmansky, sought to re-create the triumphant spirit of that 1956 London season. Maria Alexandrova and Sergei Filin glittered in Pharaoh’s Daughter; Nikolai Tsiskaridze blazed through the turbulent drama Petit’s Hermann; the divine Svetlana Lunkina showed how Balanchine should by right be danced and the company revealed a run-away hit in Ratmansky’s comic masterpiece, The Bright Stream. But for many Bolshoi-watchers, it was not until the very end of the third week, on the opening night of the final production of Don Quixote, that the term “historic” was finally stamped on the season’s memory. For it was then that the 21-year old Natalia Osipova, a young ballerina plucked from the corps, danced the role of Kitri and won the critics’ esteem and the audience’s heart. ‘Critics enjoy predicting greatness,’ declared Clifford Bishop in The Independent, ‘Osipova rather cheats us of the opportunity – she’s so obviously steeped in the stuff’; ‘Easily the best performance of this Bolshoi visit’, wrote Sarah Frater in The Evening Standard and for Clement Crisp she had ‘an electric vitality, an airy bravura, that I have not seen since Maya Plisetskaya showered us with stars in this same role 40 and more years ago’.

Sitting in a room in the depths of a hotel off Russell Square, on a whirlwind publicity trip for the coming London season, I ask her what memories she has of that tour. ‘It was a very exciting time, but I was also very worried, because for the very first time I had to dance the opening night of a ballet. For that performance I was representing the theatre and all those ballerinas whom I love and respect and who I had learned so much from, they were dancing the following performances. So I felt such a terrible responsibility and everyone was telling me how serious it was. I worried so much.’ But it was a triumphant performance, I tell her, and she was the jewel in its crown. ‘When it finished, I didn’t want to go, because it was probably the happiest moment of my life. I just didn’t want to leave London.’
 


Natalia Osipova as Kitri
© John Ross


Since then she has danced the role around the world to great acclaim and, all being well, she will reprise it for the opening performance of the ballet this summer. How does she approach each performance of the work? ‘Every time, I try to dance it in a different manner. I think this is very important because when you dance the same ballet many times it can gradually become a kind of false performance and everything in it becomes a cliché. Of course I try to set myself a certain artistic and technical standard, but everytime I change something, I invent a different story, regardless of whether it is the same partner or a new one. This is how I dance Kitri – I always think about the story. I think it is my favourite role at the moment.’

She recently performed the role during the 2007 Mariinsky Festival in front of the notriously demanding Petersburg audience. ‘It is very difficult for Moscow ballerinas to dance in St. Petersburg, it doesn’t happen very often. When you go, you feel a huge responsibility, which everyone tells you about.’ The Petersburg staging is different from that danced in Moscow, but she learnt it quickly with the great Kirov Kitri of the past, Tatiana Terekhova. ‘I was so lucky! She told me, “this is how it goes, this is how we do that” and I was so grateful’. Terekhova and her colleagues were by all accounts impressed. ‘I was so nervous beforehand, but during the first act I felt the response of the audience and when I left the stage, the Mariinsky dancers kept on approaching me saying “That was so good! Keep it up like that!”, and so my performance developed.’ Her Basilio was the Mariinsky’s newly promoted Principal, Leonid Sarafanov. ‘It was such a surpise for me that I had such a good-hearted partner. He received me with open arms and with a completely open heart. The result was that I performed the part in a completely different way – I was much more romantic!’ The audience was ecstatic and in the third act Wedding Pas de Deux she performed an almost unheard of feat by repeating the series of thirty-two fouetees (sixty-four, one after the next!). ‘Boris Gruzin was conducting and he must have remembered how Galina Stepanenko sometimes encores the fouetees in Moscow, because he started showing me something and I realised he was giving me two fingers, telling me to repeat them, and there was such a stampede from the audience, that I did. If it was up to me I would have repeated them a third time, but it was stopped by Sarafanov who came on stage and started swigging from a bottle which he then banged on the table as if to say “No! No more fouetees!” It worked so well in the context of the ballet’.

Her scheduled partner for the London performance is the young teenage Wunderkind, Ivan Vasiliev. Together they have danced six performances of the ballet, more than she has danced with any other partner. Is she comfortable with this partnership? ‘It is his first year with the company and in the beginning it wasn’t easy because he had never done a full performance of this ballet and he didn’t have much experience in duets. We were preparing for the performance for six weeks and we had to work very hard so that he could get his stamina back. But what really helped was his openness and his eagerness to learn as much as possible – he always wants to give his best. Now we have no problems whatsoever – no problems in duets or lifts, and everything works well together. What is especially good is that he is so responsive on the stage.’ As she admits to constantly changing her performance, this responsiveness seems like a good thing, but, I ask her, does she let him know what she is going to do beforehand, do they devise it together? ‘Well we do think about the structure, within which we will perform, but from that we work spontaneously and we have such a rapport. Sometimes I will walk away from him and he follows me, or sometimes he will just follow me with his eyes. We “feel” one another as partners. In Washington, earlier in the year, we had two performances over two days. We decided that on the first day I would feel offended and I would feel sorry for myself, but that on the second he would feel offended and he would feel sorry for himself. This is one of the ways we change it completely.’ So far, she tells me, it has not gone wrong.
 


Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev outside the Studios at the 2006 Havana International Ballet Festival
© Margaret Willis


Vasiliev and Sarafanov are just two of a number partners that she now dances with – Denis Matvienko, Dmitri Gudanov and Andrei Bolotin also fulfill the task at the Bolshoi – but she will not be drawn on who is her favourite. ‘I love them all! Each one has his best quality. Some are brilliant partners, very reliable, others are such wonderful human beings and some I just fancy!’

That she would end up having the pick of Bolshoi males was not always certain, because as a child she trained as a gymnast, only taking up ballet to strengthen her weak back, with the intention of returning to sport. When her back proved too weak for this to be possible, she continued her balletic training at the Moscow Choreographic Academy and was then accepted into its parent company, where she has been ever since. Watching her dance, you are aware that the gymnastic training gives her great flexibility and allows her to excell in the brilliant allegro work, but her weakness is in adagio tempo and lyrical style. During last year’s London season this was most obvious in The Pharaoh’s Daughter, a performance in which she made her debut and a role which calls for the ballerina to use the whole gamut of her dramatic and technical abilities. ‘This is actually the most difficult role, technically, in our repertoire. If I compare Kitri and Aspicia, then Aspicia is definitely more difficult. It is certainly one of the hardest roles for the ballerina. There is a very difficult adagio variation in the Underwater Act and I was working on this for about a month.’

The teacher with whom she prepares all her roles is the legendary Moscow ballerina, Marina Kondratieva, who travelled to London last year with her charge. Osipova describes her as ‘the dearest and closest person…I love her completely.’ Yet it might not always have been so. Kondratieva, famed as a ballerina for the lyricism of her manner initially saw in Osipova the complete antithesis of her style and told her, ‘“I will be honest with you – you are not my ballerina.”’ However, Osipova persisted. ‘It was my initiative to work with Kondratieva. I had dreamed of being with her since school. I wanted her and I took a risk.’ So she left the equally famed Ludmilla Semenyaka and moved over to Kondratieva. How does this conflict of styles work in rehearsal? ‘I have noticed that something strange is happening to me. I am getting much happier with lyrical roles, such as Juliet, and for a year I have been preparing Giselle which I will now be dancing in July. This is how our relationship has developed and we are now the closest people.’
 


Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Don Quixote
© M. Logvinov


How would she define the relationship with Kondratieva? ‘For me it is very important to be with her because she knows me thoroughly. She knows all my abilities, all my potential. I trust her completely. When she says to me, “No!”, I will follow her. I will follow all her taste, all her decisions, all her attitudes. Perhaps it is not good that she knows me so well, but I don’t care. I love her.’

This relationship with Kondratieva and the awkening of her more lyrical side have had some surpising results. At the beginning of the year, Suki Schorer, one of Balanchine’s greatest dancers and teachers, selected Osipova for a leading role in Serenade, which she was staging for the Bolshoi company. ‘She chose me herself and said that she really wanted me to work on Balanchine. I was very surpised. It was an entirely new experience for me. Many found that I showed an unexpected quality. So many people did not expect this from me.’ Writing in The Moscow Times, Raymond Stults commended her performance specifically for its “grace and agility”. Now she declares Balanchine one of her favourite choreographers and dreams of dancing Rubies.

On that same evening, which included the world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s Misericordes (now re-named Elsinore), she danced in the performance of Twyla Tharp’s In The Upper Room, which the Bolshoi was presenting for the very first time. ‘This was probably the most difficult piece of the entire evening. Balanchine and Tharp – they are from different planets!’ Was it easy for the dancers to adapt, I wonder? ‘At first it was difficult for everyone. We just couldn’t understand how the choreography was linked to the music, and then how we would fit in. There were so many things we couldn’t understand. It seemed so meaningless. But we had a fantastic repetiteur in Boris Akimov and he believed in us and he kept telling us that we could do everything, until we believed we could do everything. Some people discovered things that they didn’t expect and for me it was the greatest satsfaction. For the company it was by far the hardest thing to preapre these three work over the one evening.’
 


Natalia Osipova in Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room
© M. Logvinov


Does she enjoy contemporary ballet? Would she choose it over classical works? ‘It is difficult for me to give a definite answer, because I grew up on classical ballet and its training, but I am terribly interested in modern ballet as well. When I travel, I think there is so much to do in this world and maybe I just won’t have time to fit it in.’ But when I ask whether there is a choreographer with whom she longs to work, without hesitation she responds, ‘Nacho Duato. He is such a great man!’. And roles? ‘Juliet. I love both the Lavrovsky and Macmillan versions. But I cannot talk about one role, because I first dreamt about Kitri, and then I dreamt of Giselle, and now – who can tell! The more you think about a role, the more you think that it is your dream. Then you perform it and a new role becomes your dream!’ Watching this ballerina dance, you cannot help but conclude that her dreams will one day come true, such is her remarkable talent. When they do, we will watch in wonder at her feet.


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