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Natalia: Force of Nature
Featuring Natalia Osipova
With Cesar Corrales, Matthew Golding, Carlos Acosta, Marianela Nuñez, Vadim Muntagirov, Jonathan Goddard, Jason Kittelberger, Olivia Cowley, Natalia Makarova, Arthur Pita and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
Including scenes of the Royal Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet and American Ballet Theatre in rehearsal and performance.
Produced 2019
Gerry Fox (director)
Picture: 1080i High Definition
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0; 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio
All regions
OPUS ARTE Blu-ray OABD7269D [82 mins]

Ninety years ago, MGM’s publicists marketed Greta Garbo’s first attempt at a speaking role on film with the simple but irresistible slogan “Garbo talks!”  Now, as this recently-produced film is released on Blu-ray and DVD, it’s a case of “Osipova talks!”

That’s not to say, of course, that we hadn’t heard from the superstar dancer before - but while it’s true that she has spoken briefly in some of the extra documentary features added to filmed Royal Ballet productions, she’s hitherto done so in Russian which was subsequently subtitled.  Given that she has lived in London for several years, the suggestion that that she might still be unable to negotiate the purchase of a loaf of bread at the corner shop did seem a little worrying. However, this recently produced “portrait” finally allows us to hear Ms Osipova speaking in English and, while her grammar may still be somewhat dodgy, her vocabulary is comprehensive enough to deliver observations and opinions that are both acute and enlightening.

Given that, as we discover here, Natalia Osipova’s very earliest focus was on gymnastics, her transition to ballet training as a young child came quite naturally and the film includes a few sequences shot in ballet class at that time.  Even then, it was quite apparent that hers was a very special talent: indeed, at one point her classmates join in a spontaneous round of applause. After professional training she joined the Bolshoi company in Moscow where, within just a couple of years, her sheer talent had propelled her from the ranks of the corps de ballet to that of soloist. 

Such rapid promotion was, at that stage of her career, largely a reflection of her technical ability.  Contributors to this film pick out her turns and her spectacular jumps (of which Natalia Makarova says even Nijinsky might have been jealous) and certainly in those days it was her physicality that caught the eye.  When I first saw her in London a decade or so ago in her hugely acclaimed partnership with Ivan Vasiliev, the on-stage pyrotechnics of Don Quixote were so utterly dazzling that it was hard to decide which of the two dancers – both characterised by immense energy and flamboyant showmanship - was the more impressive.  In their very different subsequent career paths, however, it has been Ms Osipova who has arguably developed into the more interesting artist.

Since leaving the Bolshoi ballet in 2011 – and, more especially, since joining the Royal Ballet in 2013 – Osipova has significantly refocused her career in new directions.  Bored, so she tells us on film, with the relatively limited opportunities to explore new repertoire in Moscow, she felt much more at home in London. In part that was because the Royal Ballet has a long tradition of performing the sort of narrative ballets with which Osipova, always one to inject the maximum individual characterisation into her performances, feels the strongest affinity.  Meanwhile, the Covent Garden management, keen to attract younger audiences, proved happy to acquiesce in her desire to work with innovative new choreographers such as Arthur Pita and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Moving to London thus allowed Osipova to take the highly unusual course for a dancer of simultaneously evolving in two parallel directions, maintaining her involvement in the classical ballet repertoire while exploring – and even, as we see on film, initiating – new styles of so-called dance theatre.

Listening to Ms Osipova’s interviews in this film makes apparent another reason why she is so drawn to dance theatre.  She several times refers to her love of acting – and not just dancing – a role. That predisposition is evident even within the more restrained physical limits of classical ballet: one observer notes that her Gamzatti in La bayadère is a truly terrifying characterisation, while her “mad episode” at the end of Giselle’s first Act is pretty harrowingly conceived and executed too.  It’s easy to appreciate, therefore, that, when contemporary dance theatre productions offer her opportunities to get (quite literally) down and dirty on the floor, Osipova relishes and exploits them to the full.  This film’s excerpts from works such as Pita’s The mother (2019) showcase performances that may well come as something of an aesthetic shock to anyone who is familiar only with her Nikiya, Odette/Odile or Swanilda.

What do we learn of Natalia Osipova as a person?  When at work, which is all we ever allowed to see, we can perceive that she is usually very intense and focused – though the rare relaxed smile, when it comes, is a winning one.  She also describes herself as somewhat moody, admits to being short-tempered and, on one or two occasions, brings up the subject of depression. She seems, however, to be in a good place right now.  After well-publicised earlier relationships with fellow dancers Vasiliev and Sergei Polunin, she seems, on the evidence of this film, to be happily linked, both professionally and personally, to the American dancer and choreographer Jason Kittelberger. 

That romantic history may, I think, be of some significance.  Often, in their private lives, dancers seek to distance themselves from their highly-pressured profession.  Of some of the Royal Ballet’s leading ballerinas, Margot Fonteyn married a politician, Svetlana Beriosova was the wife of a psychoanalyst, Viviana Durante’s husband is an historian, while Nadia Nerina and Darcey Bussell both married businessmen.  The fact that each of her known partners has been a fellow dancer is, I think, rather a neat symbol of Natalia Osipova’s keenly-focused and intense dedication to the world of dance that – apart from those early jumps, leaps and tumbling passes in the gymnastics ring – is all she has ever known.

Rob Maynard

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