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About the Change

Natalia Osipova,

Bolshoi Ballet

‘A role for a lifetime - a conversation after a debut’

by Mikhail Smondyrev

© Bolshoi Ballet/M.Haegeman

Osipova in reviews

Bolshoi reviews

Natalia Osipova has been nominated in the Best Female Dancer category of the UK's 2007 National Dance Awards

Osipova interviews:
Jeffery Taylor, August 2007
Ian Palmer, June 2007

Osipova Website:

Huge thanks to Mikhail Smondyrev for allowing us to publish in English, to Anna Korisch for the translation and Ian Palmer for making it all happen.

First published in Russian at

On 22nd November 2007, the Bolshoi's youngest star ballerina, Natalia Osipova, made her much-anticipated debut in the title role of Giselle. It is every ballerina's dream to dance the part, and for Osipova it was an especial challenge. Renowned for her brilliance in the bravura role of Don Quixote's Kitri, (a part which she has already performed to huge acclaim in London), Osipova seemed an unusual choice for this most lyrical and dramatic of ballets. At first both the Bolshoi management and her coach, Marina Kondratieva, were wary of her taking it on, but over time, as she worked more and more on it, they saw that she could bring her own individual and unique gifts to the ballet.

Here, in a frank and candid interview which first appeared in Russian on the website, she tells Mikhail Smondyrev about the challenges of learning the role and of her experiences in performing this most beautiful of ballets. IP.

Mikhail Smondyrev – Giselle and you? When did you first begin to think about this role?

Natalia Osipova (thoughtfully) – About Giselle? Clearly, not during my first years in the theater. Because in the beginning I was drawn to bravura roles, to Don Quixote, for example. And Giselle… I don’t even remember who gave me the notion that I could dance this role. After my debut in Don Quixote I danced Kitri, Kitri, Kitri, all the time. I could dance this ballet now if you were to wake me in the middle of the night. I wanted to do something diametrically different, and I’ve always been attracted to ballets with some kind of dramaturgy, which offered a chance to act. Plus, I desperately want to suffer on stage. I feel close to such roles. I am drawn to Juliet, but Romeo and Juliet is not in our repertory now. So that’s how I came to Giselle. At first, both my coach and the management were skeptical about my desire to dance this ballet, but I was able to convince Marina Victorovna Kondratieva that this was indeed the very role I had to work on at that moment.

M.S. – In the context of your desire to act on stage… How did you work on the character of Giselle? What was more important – your own vision for the role, or that of your coach?

N.O. – We worked intensively for two months. Nothing else has been as difficult for me. Before rehearsals started, I thought that I knew everything I wanted to do. I already formed my vision of the role. But when I began to work, I realized that I was over-thinking, over-complicating things – the performance doesn’t need that. Then Marina Victorovna [Kondratieva] became involved. She had her own view of the ballet and slowly began to dismantle my “architectural extravagances”. I disagreed with her about many things; you could even say that we argued. I didn’t want to do much of what she suggested, and she was flatly against some of my wishes.

Natalia Osipova as Kitri and Ivan Vasiliev as Basil in Don Quioxte
© John Ross

Could you give us an example, please.

Well, I wanted to hug Albrecht in a very banal way as early as the basket dance—out of tenderness for him. This is when my village girlfriends are going off to gather grapes. But Marina Victorovna said, “Natasha, why are you embracing him? You’ve got your friends there. Two people in love couldn’t even hold hands during that time, and you are going to hug him right in front of everyone.” Or in the scene when Albrecht kisses Bathilde’s hand and I rush in between them. I wanted to turn to Albrecht right away; there is nothing I want from Bathilde. But it’s staged differently - I have to ask her and she has to show me her ring.

In the end, I accepted some things, and Marina Victorovna accepted some things. She didn’t break my individuality. And in the last two weeks before the performance she simply gave me a lot of support and encouragement. And she said that…, “Yes, you probably won’t dance like everyone else, and, yes, someone may say that certain things should be done differently, that it’s too emotional, but – this is your performance, this will be your Giselle, and you have that right.”

You studied video recordings. Which performance was the most memorable, made the greatest impression?

I watched so much, practically everything possible. Carla Fracci left the most vivid impression. It’s difficult to form an opinion about dancers from the first half of the XX century. It’s interesting, but we don’t have complete ballets, only excerpts, so I can’t judge.

Really, I liked almost everything that I saw – a little bit from everyone. And I began to gather this information and adjust it to fit me, my Giselle. But at a certain point I realized, that I am going mad myself and don’t understand anything anymore. And I decided - that’s it, I am not going to watch anything else, I am putting everything away and going from my own individuality. I asked myself what I would do in a situation like this. That is, I put myself in my character’s circumstances.

Natalia Osipova as the Ballerina in Bright Stream
© John Ross

And I really lucked out with my partner, Andrei Merkuriev. I don’t think that anyone else could have been as considerate during the two months of rehearsals, as willing to understand me. I am a fairly difficult person in terms of communication. I can never express exactly what I want. I would start saying, “Well, let’s do it this way and that way” (Natasha gestures gracefully as she speaks), and Andrei would answer, “Natasha, I don’t get what it is that you want, you have to explain.” I would demonstrate, and he’d begin to understand. I was very lucky to have him. I doubt that anyone else would brave spending two months with me to prepare so seriously for my debut. He almost went mad himself, but helped me so much.

Andrei is a very creative person and, like me, very emotional. He has his own views on the role, on ballet, on art. We argued a lot - sometimes our opinions clashed. Often it seemed to me that when I tried to explain something, he looked at me as if I were crazy. I would feel hurt, and all my initiative would dissipate. We also quarreled over the fact that I just can’t do everything exactly the same way every time. One day we’d agreed that we would do three glissades, and then look at each other. The next day I came to rehearsal, did four glissades and looked away. Andrei said, “Natasha, how long is this going to go on? We agree, and then you have something new every day…” It was tough for him to work with me. It’s not that I am forgetful; it just happened this way. I was searching. He was irritated, of course, that we were not moving forward, that we were working at such a slow pace, standing in place, that nothing was happening. But I thought that until we found ourselves, there was nowhere to go. Then, after a rehearsal, we’d sit down and talk. We talked a lot.

We couldn’t get the basket dance exactly right for about a month. At first, I was too emotional, but it’s too early for that - after all, it’s the very beginning of the ballet. And then Marina Victorovna was annoyed that I was taking all the initiative on myself. I go up to Albrecht, I hug him, I tell him, “sit here, go there, do this and that.” I didn’t believe her, thought she was exaggerating. But after I recorded myself on video, things became absolutely clear. Video recording really helps during rehearsals - you can see yourself from the outside. For example, in the bench scene at first Andrei moved towards me, and I away from him. Then we watched the tape, and it looked too much like “La Fille Mal Gardée”, while “Giselle” is a completely different ballet. And we did it in another way.

When building your character what was the starting point – your ideas (did you invent a story for yourself?), or was it the steps, the choreography that ignited your imagination and emotions?

The difficulty of this ballet is that each movement has to express meaning. You have to know very precisely what it is that you want at every moment, how you are relating to your partner, what you are feeling, what he is feeling. Otherwise, it’s impossible. The steps themselves are not complicated, the choreography is almost banal. And it will be perfectly boring, if you don’t understand what you are doing. My goal was to, first, learn the steps, and get them inside my body. Once the body remembered, I began to invent a story for myself. It took us a long time to arrive at that story. Andrei and I already knew what we wanted from each other, what we should feel in each episode. That also changed throughout the rehearsal process. And as a result steps changed, too. Of course, the choreography is our framework, but it can be done completely differently, especially in the dramatic scenes. But even pure dancing episodes are not performed exactly the same way by different ballerinas.

Natalia Osipova as Gamzatti in La Bayadere
© John Ross

About the dances. Some people said that you made the choreography more challenging technically. Is this so?

(surprised) – More challenging? In the first act there was nothing new, absolutely nothing. The only things I changed were my arm positions in some places. Perhaps people got that impression because I really did all the choreography as it was set by Lavrovsky. If there was a double pirouette with a change of feet, I did a double, not a single, as you can sometimes see done. The audience forgets sometimes. I told Marina Victorovna that some people do a certain thing in such-and-such a place, and others do something else. And she answered, “People can do what they please, you do it as it was choreographed”.

What about the diagonal in the first act variation where you do hops en pointe, stop and turn toward Albrecht, who is actually offstage at that moment. Nowadays, our ballerinas simply keep going forward without stopping to pose.

That pose is called tirebouchon. That is how the variation was choreographed. Yes, Albrecht is not there, and so first I turn to the villagers on one side and then to my mother, who is sitting on the other side. This moment made me uneasy. I said to Marina Victorovna, “It’s not logical, I am so eager to dance -

Natalia Osipova
© Bolshoi Ballet/M.Haegeman

the fact that he is looking at me has to be the inspiration, but he is not actually there.” But I think the diagonal with the turns and tirebouchon is more interesting, more varied.

What about the coda of that variation? There are two versions; one of them was thought to originate in the West, but it was danced by Spessivtseva, so they are both ours. You chose to do the customary pique turns.

I really like Spessivtseva’s diagonal, more than our traditional turns. But I wasn’t allowed to do it, not yet. If I dance this ballet often and it really becomes part of my repertoire, I will dance the diagonal. My coach thinks that it is an acceptable version, and quite possibly it will be a better and more effective one for me. For the moment, though, it’s better not to do it; there is lots of talk as it is.

But if we are talking about the second act, there we did add some technical challenges to the duets, and more precisely to the lifts, which in fact were choreographed that way a long time ago. At the end of the adagio, for example, we do the “swallow”. Everyone had always done it. People started to say, “What have they done!” But Marina Victorovna said, “What are you talking about, thirty years ago we all danced it like that.” In her time, all partners lifted their ballerinas in a “swallow”.

There was another place, after the adagio, where we did something as it used to be – this is right before my jumps with batterie, when Andrei lifts me in a pretty pose. These days ballerinas throw their legs open in a pas de chat, but we did it the way it used to be danced. We didn’t make anything up, it all existed before.

Something Andrei and I took from the French were the carrying lifts in the Adagio. Nicolas Le Riche did it this way. In our version the ballerina is simply carried, and then she does an arabesque. Andrei lifted me and rocked me side to side in a wave-like motion – it looks very beautiful. And it’s very difficult for the partner who practically has to carry my whole weight on his outstretched arms - insanely difficult for him. And after that he still has to lift me into “coffin” and carry without being able to see where.

Natalia Osipova as Gamzatti in La Bayadere
© John Ross

You had very slow tempi during the duets - when you met Albrecht, and in Grand Adagio. It was very beautiful. Did you arrange this with the conductor?

(smiling wistfully) – We only met the conductor (Alexander Kopylov) twice before the performance. He came to our rehearsals, and for some reason the pianist kept playing too fast, and we kept asking for a calmer tempo. In the end the orchestra was even a little calmer than we needed. At certain moments we were uncomfortable, but then we realized, that it was right and beautiful. We weren’t hemmed in by the musical framework - we didn’t need to rush to take a certain pose because there’s not enough time and I am just about to be lifted.

We heard the orchestra for the first time at our premiere. The theater couldn’t give us either a rehearsal with the orchestra or rehearsals with the corps de ballet – something didn’t come together. I hardly tried out my new costumes, didn’t rehearse in them, and only put them on a couple of times before the performance. I haven’t had this kind of experience before. I hope this doesn’t become the norm. It was different with Kitri. I realized that it won’t help me to cry or go off the deep end, and that I have to collect myself. Andrei and I went to the theater on our day off to try the cloth that covers the stage. All of our classes and almost all our performances are done on linoleum flooring. But for “Giselle” a cloth gets nailed down to the stage. The friction is different, your turns are faster. You prepare for a double pirouette and can just fly off somewhere. And it’s easier to slip when the cloth doesn’t stay in place. You have to get used to it and adjust. When you dance on it everyday, it’s fine, but when you change from one kind of floor to another it distracts you from the most important thing.

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

There were some mistakes and inaccuracies during the performance, probably due to lack of rehearsals with the company - with the sword in the first act, and in the scene with Albrecht and the lilies in the second act, when you didn’t make an appearance in the trees.

The first gaffe was even earlier, in the basket dance. Since we didn’t rehearse with the girls, I didn’t have enough time to run over to them and join in. So, I decided to play the situation as if I was unwell and needed a little rest.

The sword... In the mad scene, after I remember the flower and Albrecht’s vow, I have to walk in a semicircle and bump into the sword. I walked in a straight line and missed it. I had to step back and look for it, while the right music was already playing.

I missed the entrance with the flowers for a very banal reason. After all the jumps in my solo, my Achilles tendon really hurt. I ran backstage to retie my pointe shoe, because it really was very painful. As I am tying the ribbons, I realize, “My God, I missed my entrance.” Andrei had to improvise something. It’s because I don’t know the ballet that well yet. Later, I was told that ballerinas often forget to enter at that moment.

Myrtha’s bouquet. Usually, it’s carried this way (Natasha demonstrates), but I wanted to do it like this, from all my heart. But the bouquet was just too large, it had to fall apart. One or two flowers fell out in the middle of the stage, but at that moment, in my terror, it seemed as if half the bouquet fell out.

Were you nervous?

As never before in my life! I didn’t sleep well for almost a month. But beyond the anxiety, I really fell under the spell of the role, and I began to lose my mind a little. I heard from many people that this ballet is difficult psychologically and that it’s hard to recover from it. When my parents began to worry, I realized that something strange was happening. I changed while working on this role, I grew up.

Natalia Osipova while at the Bolshoi Ballet School in the solo from Esmeralda at the La Scala International Gala in September 2003
© Teatro alla Scala/Andrea Tamoni

You showed a very naturalistic heart attack, and your mad scene was truly frightening…

I received four text messages during the intermission, one of them from my mother. They were all asking if I was alright. I was really hysterical in the mad scene. I don’t quite remember what my arms and legs were doing. In the final moments, just like Giselle, I couldn’t see anything anymore. I could have easily knocked someone over. I almost fell, when the gamekeeper Hilarion, Ruslan Pronin, caught me to point me toward Bertha. I wanted to push him away, really wanted to. And the death itself came off very natural – I watched the video afterwards. I didn’t embrace Albrecht, didn’t cling to him, but just collapsed dead.

But Natasha, you risk burning out on stage this way. You are an actor; shouldn’t you play the part instead of living it in front of the audience each time?

The answer was the ballerina’s silence.

Are you pleased with what you’ve done?

Let’s say that I am pleased that I danced this role. I can’t fault myself for not doing enough. We worked long and hard on this ballet. Undoubtedly, much remains unfinished. A ballerina can work her entire life on a role like this. I am very happy that I danced it. I wanted to so much. And the role changed me. I will continue working to fix the mistakes, but I want to stay true to who I am. It was very important for me not to lose myself in this ballet and do something only because it’s tradition, without bringing something personal to the role. I did what I felt. Marina Victorovna Kondratieva really helped me to do it my way. She brought me into the ballet without breaking my individuality. And now she says that I can fill in the framework with my own colours. I told my own story, as best I could, and it was my truth. I didn’t do everything I wanted, but I hope to have another chance. Andrei and I have two performances in Turin, and I was promised another in Moscow in the spring.

This is your first tragic role. I am sorry that I won’t be able to interview you after your hundredth “Giselle”, but what about right now? What’s next, what are your plans, dreams?

I dream about serious, major work – about Juliet. I would really like to dance it now, at my age, not when I am thirty. I don’t even care which version I dance. I’ve been invited to Stuttgart. Perhaps, I’ll be able to dance Cranko’s “Romeo and Juliet” there. I was also offered Katharina in his “The Taming of the Shrew”.

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

This January, in Paris, I have my first performance as Medora in “Le Corsaire”. And I’ve been cast in “La Sylphide” in February. It’s also a tragic story, but more naïve and magical, without the depth of Juliet or Giselle. In the spring there is going to be Aspiccia in “La Fille du Pharaon” – I’ve only danced this role once, in London.

As far as the white classics, I would like to dance Nikya sometime down the line. “Swan Lake”, no, at this point I don’t want to, and probably, couldn’t do it. It would be interesting to dance “Sleeping Beauty”, but it’s performed so rarely that I am unlikely to get it. In that ballet I would have liked to dance the happiness of youth. After all,I am still so young.

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