Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain and interpreted by Olya David
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 11 March 2015.
FOLLOWING DAVID'S WELCOME to Natalia (who said she speaks a little English but not enough for this talk) and her interpreter, Olya David, she began by saying she was born in Moscow in a simple family with no connection to ballet or the arts. She did gymnastics for four years and would have been good but due to an injury she had to give up which was a tragedy because she wanted to become Olympic champion. Unfortunately her parents decided to take her to ballet which was a further tragedy as she didn’t want to do it under any circumstances! She began to dance but there were so many complaints from teachers as she was bored and spent her time looking out of the window! Although she had good ability and skill she just didn’t like it. She also wanted to become a doctor so gave up ballet for three months to study but went back to class to please her parents. On her return to ballet school something changed as she started dancing rather than just doing the exercises and she began to like it. By this time she was 12 years old. At a gala given by the Moscow Ballet School she performed a Russian dance which she loved and was very proud to show the Russian character. Natalia recalled being on the huge and historic stage of the Bolshoi with all the noise of the theatre and she loved it so much and wanted people to love her. It is exciting to feel the energy of love from the audience and for her it is the most important part of the profession as it’s so nice to be liked. The dancers work very hard but they understand why when they feel that audience appreciation.
So, at the age of 12 she was back at school, enjoying ballet. Natalia said that at that age you become interested in boys and relationships so liked to be in the ballet. Her teacher was very strong and helped her so much and taught her how to interpret roles and to put emotion and feeling into her work. When she was 15 or 16 she started doing roles and they became her obsession. She spent all day in ballet class and loved it very much. That feeling has never faded, becoming a part of her life which she can’t live without. When she was finishing school nobody wanted to take her into the Bolshoi because she was so small with such energy and wasn’t considered suitable, as the fashion was for tall, slim dancers and she didn’t fit that ideal. She was advised to consider the Stanislavsky company in Moscow, which is the second company, but she really wanted to dance in the Bolshoi. The year she graduated, a new artistic director, Alexei Ratmansky, came to the Bolshoi. For an exam Natalia performed a Spanish character dance which she made herself and put so much energy into it that, when he saw it, Ratmansky said ‘you have to be in the Bolshoi!’ Her first years in the Bolshoi were very difficult as she was in the corps and didn’t know if she would ever be given roles. Gradually over time she started doing solo parts and different choreographers came and chose her for their works and so she became noticed. Ratmansky gave her first major role which was Kitri in Don Quixote. She believes she was successful in the part as the Bolshoi production suits her nature very well as it has so much energy and the people loved it. The difficulty was that after her success people thought if she danced Kitri so well she wouldn’t be able to do anything else! She asked to do Giselle or La Sylphide but they thought she was mad as they didn’t see her in lyrical roles so she was very upset and in tears but determined to prove them wrong. The Russian ideas were to her mind quite conservative.
Alexei Ramansky took Natalia into the Bolshoi, choreographed on her, and remained with the company for five years. It was a difficult time for him as when he came there was so much tradition and conservative feeling and he was young (aged 40) and faced resistance as he wanted to do new works and modern choreography which nobody wanted. Many dancers of the older generation didn’t want to participate in his productions which they boycotted, but gradually they became accustomed. Alexei wanted to get young dancers to perform his work and there was a group formed of 10 or 15 dancers who were enthusiastic about his choreography. In all his time at the Bolshoi he was fighting against the rules and traditions wanting to be himself without compromise and she respected him for that. For Natalia it was the happiest time as she was one of the group. He always chose her for his ballets and they had a good relationship. One important moment came when she was 19 and he trusted her so much that he took her to dance in London and she recalled the response from the audience which she will never forget. Alexei’s choreography isn’t easy but Natalia has every respect for his ballets and is going to dance his Sleeping Beauty in New York in the summer. He is such an interesting person and she always gets into conflict with him about his work which makes it interesting.
Asked when Alexei gave her the chance to do other principal roles, Natalia said this was Giselle. She’d become resigned to never doing it as everybody said it wasn’t for her. She’d thought of Gamzatti (Bayadère) but Alexei said they should do something completely different and it should be Giselle. Natalia was quite shocked but immediately said yes! Working on Giselle was very difficult and a very long process. She managed to do it but the preparation was tough. She was in conflict with her teacher as Moscow is very conservative and Natalia wanted to do things in a different way which she did, regardless of the teacher! Unfortunately she did it for two or three times only which was very sad. Alexei left the company and the new director didn’t see her as Giselle. Luckily she was invited to dance with American Ballet Theatre in New York and the reviews were so good that she was allowed to do it again. Natalia wanted to point out that her career in the Bolshoi wasn’t simple but that is what made her so strong and it is her favourite home and her first love.
She has now danced Giselle not just with the Bolshoi but also the Mikhailovsky, ABT and the Royal and recently she returned to the Bolshoi stage to dance it with Steven McRae. Currently Natalia’s favourite production which suits her best is Peter Wright’s for the Royal. She feels herself to be a real actress in it with so much attention to detail. She can play a normal person on stage and feels very natural in the role. It’s the first time she has felt she can show what she’s feeling. Just looking into the Prince’s eyes shows more than gestures and she senses that the audience understand what she feels. She’s very happy doing the role here in London and going back to Russia she stands out as she’s not the same as the Russian company or the Russian dancers. What was different was not the dance but the approach. She saw herself in the recording of her dancing in Russia and she looked alien to the company. So, dancing recently with Steven McRae they performed in the English way and were actors on the Bolshoi stage. It would have been stupid for them to perform in the Russian way but the other actors and dancers were very shocked when Steven approached and tried to interact with them and talk to them on the stage. It’s unusual for a principal to do that as the cast usually just sit quietly watching! Even her ‘mother’ didn’t understand and when Natalia looked into her eyes, worried and concerned, the actress asked what was wrong - ‘I don’t understand what you are trying to say, is it because you don’t know what to do?!’ But in the end the performance was very good and in general everyone on stage helped them.
Talking of other highlights with the Bolshoi, Natalia said she had good memories of all the roles she performed during her three or four years there especially Flames of Paris which she danced with Ivan Vasiliev and the stage was moving and making a noise as they danced. She did Swanilda and Esmeralda. There are other roles like Nikiya which she was preparing with the teacher. She has very special memories of performing opening night of La Sylphide. Again nobody believed she was capable but there was a chance to elevate and fly and she loved doing it.
Asked why she left the Bolshoi, Natalia said it was a very difficult question. Alexei left so everything changed and for Natalia as well. It didn’t get any better or worse, but was just very different. She continued working and was part of it for seven or eight years but gradually she wasn’t getting new roles, people didn’t want to give her anything and at the same time she was invited to dance in Italy, ABT and London so there was little satisfaction in being part of the Bolshoi where she was wasting her time while doing so much more elsewhere. At the time she was with Ivan as a couple as well as partners on stage and they decided to try something new so accepted the Mikhailovsky proposal and with that company there were opportunities to dance in other parts of the world. For two years they didn’t have a home as they spent three months in New York, more time in St Petersburg and all over the place and then she was invited to do Swan Lake in London. Quite soon after, Kevin O’Hare made an offer of a contract which she accepted. During those two years it was a very happy period as she had many new works including Esmeralda in Roland Petit’s production Notre Dame de Paris. It was not easy to make the decision to join the Royal Ballet because she was happy not to belong to any company and travel and dance all over the world but after two years of doing that she was quite tired and wanted to settle and loves London and is happy to be here.
As a guest here Natalia danced Swan Lake with Carlos Acosta. It was an unusual experience for her to perform a different production of Swan Lake and she was quite surprised to be invited. She had time to think about it and prepare for the role and she liked the London production as there was so much new in it for her. Carlos is a fantastic partner and can lift you with one finger but unfortunately during their second rehearsal she broke his nose! She was spinning very fast and doesn’t like to be helped to rotate but he was used to helping and came so close that she hit him with her elbow. It was so awful that she wanted to run back to Russia! There was blood everywhere which was scary but he was laughing at the fact that she was so small and could still do something like that! They spent a lot of time preparing the role and it took a long time and she is so thankful to him as he is a good partner and taught her so many things. When she came back to London as principal she continued dancing with Carlos.
Audio clip - adapting to the Royal Ballet:
Talking of her arrival in the country and beginning as principal at the Royal Ballet, Natalia said that her first impressions were awful. She arrived at the airport direct from La Scala with four suitcases, feeling very lonely and very lost as she didn’t know what would happen and had no hopes that things would go well. She took a taxi and went to the Opera House and immediately there was so much support and welcome, and she was greeted in a nice way with everyone trying to help. Kevin O’Hare was very welcoming and offered her an apartment until she found somewhere to live. The difficulty was that she had never lived by herself, having always been with her family or in hotels or with Ivan, and suddenly here she was, unable to speak the language, not knowing how to pay for utilities or anything. At the same time she had to work and adopt the style of the company and it was very hard to adjust as it all takes time. She didn’t expect the warm reception that she received in the company where everyone is nice and supportive but now the company is her family and she has many friends here so she’s having the best time of her life. She thought she wouldn’t be accepted with her Russian style and training but people are very warm. She is trying her best to adjust herself to the style so as not to show her Russian training, and wants to learn as much as possible of the English style for Macmillan and Ashton works. In Month in the Country she thought she wouldn’t be able to do it but watched many ballerinas and the Lynn Seymour video to help adapt to the style.
Then she did Wayne McGregor’s Tetractys and her first performance with Eric Underwood. She had met Wayne before coming here as she was rehearsing his choreography at the Bolshoi and when she was invited here for Swan Lake he saw her and made a piece for her to dance with Ed Watson. It was wonderful to relax from the classical tradition and do what her body wanted to do as she believes her body suits Wayne’s choreography and they have a mutual admiration and love each other. Unfortunately there was an accident during the first performance when she bumped into Eric and got concussion, but this is part of working in the profession. Recently she was dancing Kitri and she fell down on stage and it happens as dancers are human but her mother tells Natalia that with her it’s too often! She knows she has too much energy so these incidents occur as she can’t control herself but it happens less often now! If you fall and get up it’s OK, but injuries are scary.
On partnerships in the Royal, Natalia has danced with Carlos Acosta, Matthew Golding, Edward Watson, Steven McRae and Eric Underwood amongst others. The amazing thing about this company is that the attitude to the ballerina is very caring and important and all partners ask if the way they hold you is comfortable for you and this has never happened before. Her previous partners generally came and rehearsed and finished and there wasn’t much interaction but here they are helpful and always want to get the best for the ballerina. She’s already spoken of Carlos, her first partner, and with Stephen McRae it was very successful. He is amazing, not tall, but so strong and supportive on stage and he moves incredibly quickly. With Ed it is like a brother and sister relationship and they completely understand each other as one. Federico Bonelli is lyrical and romantic and another very good partner. Her new partnership is with Matthew. It took a while for them to come together because of her injury and he had to wait. Their first role was The Dream, which wasn’t a very great success, but now in Onegin he taught her a lot and with him she can do anything on stage and express anything she wants as he is always there. The ballet is very hard because Cranko set very difficult technical tasks and tricky supports and if the partner doesn’t lift you properly you can’t be Tatiana. Her partnership with Matthew isn’t yet completely developed and they haven’t yet achieved as much as they can and will so she doesn’t yet know how it will turn out. Her favourite partner is David Hallberg. The moment when you look into his eyes you don’t have to act or play, it’s sufficient simply to look. He has intuition as to what will happen next. It is amazing. She’s very sorry that they don’t dance a lot together as he has an injury but next season they will dance again.
Last summer she did Solo for Two with Ivan Vasiliev at the Coliseum - why did they choose these particular choreographers? Natalia said she wanted to do this programme as something different, started thinking of experiences that impressed her recently and chose these three. Some of the choreographers weren’t very excited at her ideas, and the Israeli choreographer, Ohad Naharin, didn’t want to do anything with her as he doesn’t like classical dancing but she insisted and was pleased with the outcome. She didn’t think what they did was all they could have achieved as there wasn’t much time to prepare the programme but the last ballet, Arthur Pita’s Facada, was the best of the three because in the final part she danced on a table which is at the same time a grave in which Ivan is lying and the energy of this dance is something you wouldn’t ever see in classical ballet. She thought she wouldn’t be able to do it but the choreographer said she should and Ivan, who was in the grave underneath, started shaking and was physically afraid. The actual performance was the first time he did it properly as he was too scared during rehearsals and thought he’d never get out so was terrified for his life! Natalia loves modern choreography and believes it is important to have the mix of classical and modern dance and she feels it’s her life’s purpose to do more modern choreography. Does she have plans for another programme? Natalia said at the moment she’s negotiating a new programme for next summer in Sadler’s Wells. It will be her own production but only with partners invited by the choreographers so she’s hoping it will be a very good programme.
At the moment she’s very tired, rehearsing all day with the new Wayne McGregor work, the Balanchine Four Temperaments, and dancing Swan Lake. They start at 10.30am and work until 6.30pm which is very tiring. At the same time it’s her favourite job and she loves it so much which is obvious to everyone and she’s very happy to be busy. Her mum tells her when she complains about being tired ‘but you love it so much and you don’t want to clean floors!’ That makes it easier!
It is hard to say what she actually does in Woolf Works as they are just rehearsing, and she’s dancing with Steven and Ed and Alessandra Ferri. It should be fantastic and she loves the music so hopes it’ll be a very good piece.
Before thanking Natalia, David offered our special thanks to Olya for interpreting so well this evening. It was a pleasure to have Natalia as our guest. She may love dancing in London but we love having her here too. Natalia said she is so happy to be dancing here and is grateful for the opportunity to dance so many varied roles. Any dancer would dream of dancing Juliet and Tatiana and now she can do them.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Natalia Osipova, Olya David & David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2015.