Were you to compose a list of the greatest ballet dancers performing today then the name Natalia Osipova would undoubtedly feature. Principal dancer with the Royal Ballet and a former soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet, Osipova has been described as ‘the most sought-after ballerina in the world’
This summer we welcome her undisputed talent to Southbank Centre as she appears in The Mother, choreographed by Arthur Pita. Osipova performs the title role of a young single mother must face fantastic creatures, impossible trials and cross the line between life and death itself as she sets out to save her child. Ahead of this run of three performances, we spoke with the acclaimed dancer about The Mother, and her own background.
Those of us not familiar with ballet perhaps assume that professional ballerinas have been in training from an incredibly early age, but you actually began in gymnastics, before switching to ballet. What prompted that switch, and do you feel it has benefited you as a dancer?
I always loved gymnastics, but I got injured and it really frightened my mum. She started thinking I’d break everything if I stayed in sports. Gymnastics gave me a lot - discipline, will power, the ability to achieve set goals. I got really upset when I realised I had to give it up and my parents began searching for an alternative for me. They thought of ballet and brought me to a ballet school, where the teachers took one look at me and immediately said ‘this girl is perfect for us’.
By the age of 20 you’d been promoted to soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet, but chose to leave just a few years later. Was it a hard decision to leave such a prestigious company?
It was probably easier for me to make that decision than it was for others. I am quite a spontaneous person and life is always leading me to try new things. Despite the fact the Bolshoi Ballet represents a big and important part of my career, there was a moment when I realised that I no longer felt comfortable there, I couldn’t grow anymore professionally, I was stuck in a conservative environment. That is why I made my decision and I have never regretted it for a second.
You’ve danced all over the world, but after six years with The Royal Ballet is London starting to feel like home for you?
It happened a lot earlier than that, from the start almost. I do feel at home in the Royal Ballet, in London. I’m really content at the moment and have no plans to make any radical changes. I dance my favourite classical roles and have enough time for my other projects. But I always try to go back to Moscow where there is an audience that loves me and where my parents are based.
What attracted you to this production of The Mother? Was it an easy role to accept?
It’s a really unusual part for a ballerina and this is exactly what attracted me. Leading female roles in ballet are usually young girls in various romantic scenarios. But here my character is a mother, fighting with Death for the life of her child. She sets off on a dangerous journey into a psychedelic world whilst never leaving the four walls of her flat. I don’t have any children of my own, but I really tried to find my heroine within me and express all her emotions. I’m not just a ballerina in this piece, I’m an actress too. It’s a really new and exciting experience for me.
Director and choreographer of The Mother, Arthur Pita, has been described by The Guardian as ‘The David Lynch of Dance’. What’s it been like working with him? Is there anything that marks his directing style as different to others you’ve worked with?
Arthur is my friend and one of my favourite choreographers. I really love the genre of narrative ballet that he’s developing and he and I are totally on the same wavelength. It often happens that we come up with exactly the same idea. We catch each other’s thoughts in midair.
Jonathan Goddard is a hugely acclaimed dancer too of course, how have you found him easy to dance with? Do you connect with some dancers more than others?
I saw Jonathan in Dracula an immediately thought he was stunning. In The Mother Jonathan plays Death and all its many guises. He’s a man, then a lady, then an old woman, then he transforms into the main character’s lost lover. Dancing such a tightly wound and dramatically complex plot requires not only flawless technique, but also a really deep and unspoken connection. When you dance looking into each other’s eyes, forgetting everything that went before in rehearsals, I realise that it’s not Jonathan and I on stage anymore, but our characters. When this happens, it is really special. Surely you want to keep working with that person. It’s inspiring and allows you to discover new things within you. It was like that with Ivan Vasiliev, and now with David Hallberg who I’m dancing with in this season’s Romeo and Juliet and with Jason Kittelberger who I work with on contemporary pieces.
You’re regularly championed as one of the greatest ballerinas; how does it feel to be spoken of so highly? Does it add pressure at all?
Honestly, I don’t pay much attention to those titles and really don’t think about it much at all. It’s the energy of creativity which motivates me. The most important thing for me is to fulfil my potential and to dance everything I want to. I don’t aspire to be anyone’s ideal ballerina. I’m always discovering new sides of myself, I take risks and am not too preoccupied with the possibility of disappointing someone.
And lastly, how do you hope the Southbank Centre audience will respond to The Mother? Is there anything you hope they’ll take away with them from the performance?
The audience loved The Mother in Edinburgh and in Moscow. I believe it will be a success in London as well. The theme of maternal lover and sacrifice means something to everyone. No one will leave the production untouched. And it has a real star-studded team working on it: set designer Yann Seabra, composers and musicians Frank Moon and David Price, producer Alexandrina Markvo and dramaturg Anna Rulevskaya.
It’s both a beautiful and terrifying fairy-tale about life and death with an ending which each member of the audience is free to interpret in their own way.