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Natalia Osipova: Stretching in New Directions

November 10, 2016 by New York City Center

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin in Run Mary Run; photo by Bill Cooper

“This project is important for me. It is my dream. This is how I want to express my personality.” That’s how Natalia Osipova describes her determination to commission Natalia Osipova & Artists, a program of contemporary dance that opens at City Center tonight after premiering at Sadler’s Wells in June.

To fling herself so whole-heartedly into contemporary work is an unusual decision for a ballerina to make while she is still at the absolute peak of her classical career. Sylvie Guillem may have blazed the trail, but that was at a point when she knew her Sleeping Beauties and Swan Lakes were numbered. Osipova, on the other hand, is taking this path at the age of 29—when she is simultaneously climbing the pinnacles of traditional technique. “To mix classical and contemporary. That is my wish,” she says.

To the choreographers who have worked with her, that choice is not so surprising. “She has actually got a very modern way of moving, with incredible attack,” says Russell Maliphant. “To me she is quite punky in her attitude towards dance and it must be quite liberating for her to be able to express her artistry in styles other than the classical.”

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin in Silent Echo; photo by Bill Cooper

Maliphant, who trained at the Royal Ballet School and began his career with the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, has made Silent Echo, a duet for Osipova and her partner Sergei Polunin that draws on their balletic roots, their incredible elevation, his elegance, her lightness and speed. “Its inspiration is really the classical pas de deux structure, with the intro, the solos, and then the big duet. I wanted to make a contemporary version of that.”

He has noticed in doing so that although Osipova and Polunin have very different backgrounds—he trained with the Royal Ballet from the age of 13, she rose through the ranks of the Moscow State Academy and the Bolshoi Ballet—that when they dance “they can look like twins at times. There’s an incredible togetherness about them and an uncanny resemblance in the way they move their arms and hands.”

Arthur Pita has also choreographed a duet for the two of them, titled Run Mary Run. Osipova, who has worked with Pita before on Facada, a bitterly humorous duet about her jilted bride with her former boyfriend Ivan Vasiliev, explains: “It is a dramatic story where two people can’t live together and they can’t live apart. Sergei and I both love to play and this is very interesting, because it is a real actors’ story and we have to act.”

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin in Run Mary Run; photo by Bill Cooper

Pita explains he drew his inspiration for the piece from thinking about the singer Amy Winehouse and her destructive relationship with her one-time husband Blake Fielder-Civil. He was particularly struck by a moment at the end of her scorching performance of “Love is a Losing Game” at the Mercury Prize ceremony. “She sings it so beautifully,” he says. “You can hear a pin drop when she finishes and then Blake comes up to the stage and takes her hand and walks her away. And I felt I wanted to shout, ‘No, you are a strong woman, you can exit the stage. You don’t need this man to hold your hand and take you out.’ But there is something so gentlemanly about that as well. There is such an odd thing going on. It is about ownership on his side and obsession on hers.”

He didn’t want to make a dance piece about Winehouse, but he uses the complexity of that relationship and the songs of The Shangri-Las to create his own dark love story, flecked with the movements of the 1960s. Creating the piece with Osipova has been a pleasure, he says. “You take her somewhere and she will completely go there. She thinks about it and enters into that world. She loves being seen differently, which makes working with her a lot of fun.”

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has also previously collaborated with Osipova on her program with Vasiliev, Solo for Two. But this time he wanted to immerse her more fully in his contemporary world, putting her alongside two dancers he has worked with regularly, James O’Hara and Jason Kittleberger. “There is nothing in this trio about sensuality,” he explains. “Rather it is about survival. A lot to do with how people help each other. There is a sense too of ritual and how people need to breathe together in order to get through.” The title, Qutb, is the Arabic word for axis and is also a term used by the Sufis.

James O’Hara, Natalia Osipova, and Jason Kittleberger in Qutb; photo by Bill Cooper

In making the piece, Cherkaoui was struck by Osipova’s strength. “I have rarely seen someone so strong. It is a strength that is not based on hiding fragility, which is usually the case. What I love with her is that she hides nothing. There is this absolute honesty mixed with an incredible power. Her natural instincts are really strong so she knows what the right thing is to do beyond any sort of style.”

That doesn’t mean Osipova has found adapting her body to such new movement patterns easy. “When people say for classically trained dancers, nothing is difficult, it’s not true. As a classical dancer you are always told that when you have this tree inside of you”—she sits up straight to show the rigidity of a ballerina’s core position—“it helps you to get in every ballet position. In contemporary dance you are full of fluidity, which is completely different. Everything moves in your body and it’s great, but the danger is we don’t know this modern dance world, we are not trained in this. I look at dancers like James and Jason and I don’t understand how they just fall on the floor so simply. I don’t know how to do that. Only when you move like that all day, in the evening you can fall the way they need you to fall.”

Her physical quality, her understanding of the way weight moves in the body, is something all three choreographers have noticed. “She has a hunger and a level of curiosity about different ways of moving,” says Maliphant, noting that in the past she has studied Gaga with the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. Cherkaoui adds, “She is constantly exploring all the different ways choreographers work, whether it’s with Christopher Wheeldon, or Arthur, or Russell, and then with me.”

James O’Hara, Natalia Osipova, and Jason Kittleberger in Qutb; photo by Bill Cooper

“It is like speaking Chinese and then speaking French and then speaking English,” he continued. “There is a lot of switching that she needs to do and she is acquiring certain skills. It is nice to see her gain more and more ability to make physically different choices. She makes her own new rules and I really respect that in her.”

Yet it is not just her desire to explore different techniques that pushes Osipova on. “Physically it is quite difficult,” she says. “Also you have to understand why you do it; there are people who could probably do it better than you. But I think the difference with me is that I put my soul into it. This is what I do, this is me.”

Sarah Crompton is a writer and broadcaster. This article is reprinted courtesy of Sadler’s Wells London.