‘I am not interested in sporting diamond tiaras on stage, or having my point shoes cooked and eaten by my fans,’ muses Natalia Osipova, referring to two old ballet anecdotes.
‘Ballet has evolved and the ballerina figure with it. The world around us offers new challenges, new stimuli and new opportunities, and I believe that it is the responsibility of every artist to be constantly ready to respond to these. There is simply no reason, nor time, to perpetuate century-old clichés, such as the remote, semi-divine figure of the 19th-century ballet star.’
Osipova, now a Royal Ballet principal, is still remembered by many as the Bolshoi Ballet’s soloist, who, only a few years ago, dazzled dance-goers all over the world. Her unique approach to the classics, together with her technical abilities, helped to revitalise the languishing art of ballet and, more significantly, to change the image of the ballerina — an image that is still shrouded in bias and misconception. She is the last in an illustrious line of Russian artists — Galina Ulanova, Maya Plisetskaya, Ekaterina Maximova and Galina Mezentseva are among the ones she mentioned — who were and still are legends but never ‘divas’. ‘Their art, and their devotion to their art in particular, was and still is at the core of my artistic creed. I was also inspired by their eclecticism, and their desire to engage with diverse choreographic styles and genres.’
Indeed, artistic versatility is at the core of Solo for Two, in which Osipova will appear with the equally dazzling Ivan Vasiliev, her partner on stage and in life. ‘It is a performance of modern works, works that were carefully chosen for the range of stimulating challenges they offer, challenges that we both wish to confront.’
The choice might look bold to some, as the performance moves away dramatically from what the public has learnt to associate with the couple. But it should not be read as an act of rebellion, as Osipova states. ‘I believe that, since the late 20th century, ballet artists have benefited from being free to move across choreographic modes. Though such opportunities ought not to be read or interpreted as synonymous with breaking away from tradition. The importance of tradition cannot be overlooked, as tradition remains key to what ballet is today and will be tomorrow. A performance such as Solo for Two, therefore, should not be construed as a cry for more artistic freedom. I am very lucky to be working with the Royal Ballet, a company that offers a splendidly varied and wide range of possibilities for its artists. Solo for Two is not a reaction, but the practical realisation of our wish to explore the work of dance-makers we feel particularly attracted to and interested in.’
Conceived by the producer Sergei Danilian, whose credits include the recently acclaimed Kings of the Dance programme, Solo for Two will include specially commissioned works by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Ohad Naharin and Arthur Pita, three of the most cutting-edge choreographers around. ‘The choice of the three choreographers is entirely ours, and stems from a number of carefully thought-through considerations. Choosing your own choreographers is indeed a luxury that not many dancers normally enjoy. But it is not an easy task to make your own programme. What we both wished to steer away from was the showcase scenario, namely a performance built around the notion of showing off, for the sake of showing off. Our desire is to offer audiences something different, something new, something unexpected, that casts new light on how we are perceived as dance artists. The decision-making process was thus not an easy one.’
But was it a smooth one? Osipova does not reply at first. Her eyes sparkle and a smile rapidly materialises on what must surely be one of the prettiest faces in the ballet world. ‘Yes, it was,’ she replies, leaving one to wonder who had the final say.
‘Ivan and I are used to working with different dance-makers. And we are certainly not the first to experiment with and explore diverse dance forms. Such interaction is vital for the contemporary ballet artist, for it allows us to revisit known choreographic territories through new takes and perspectives, and thus add to the art’s continuous progress. What attracted us to the dance-makers we have chosen was exactly the way each of them, in different and yet complementary ways, allowed us to expand further our range of experiences and our dance knowledge. The programme thus reveals aspects of our artistic persona that might not be familiar to most dance-goers...
‘A dance career is not something that belongs to other dimensions or realities. It is a way of living, my way of living. True, once out of the rehearsal studio, I like to walk around London, to go to museums, see things and interact with everything, but at the back of my mind there is always my dancing, my ballet-based philosophy of living, as I call it.’
Echoes of the French philosopher Roger Garaudy’s famous 1973 book Danser sa vie spring to mind...Osipova is probably too young to have been caught up in the craze that surrounded the book when it was first published. And yet it would not be entirely surprising, given her vast knowledge of all things related to dance and dance history, that she is aware of it. With her, the past combines fluidly with the present, a present that is already a legend in the making.