Natalia Osipova on portraying grief and loss in The Mother and why she’s tackling contemporary dance at the height of her ballet career

THE MOTHER featuring Natalia Osipova and Jonathan Goddard photo by Kenny Mathieson

Natalia Osipova, Royal Ballet principal dancer, is one of the most acclaimed ballerinas of our time, hailed for her deeply emotional classical performances. But Natalia is more than just a prima ballerina loved for her Giselle, Juliet, Tatiana and Swan Queens. She is a fearless artist who is drawn to challenging roles, and is willing to slip off her pointe shoes and forge unbound into contemporary and experimental dance.  

Natalia is taking on an emotionally and physically challenging dance drama role in Arthur Pita’s The Mother, which is premiering in London at Southbank on 20-22 June. The Mother is a dark interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s sorrowful tale, that sees Natalia as a grieving Mother whose loss of her child is portrayed in a duet with Death, performed by contemporary dancer Jonathan Goddard.

Natalia shares her experience of creating this role, the challenges of telling this tale, and why she is tackling contemporary dance at the height of her ballet career.  

How have you approached the dark role in Arthur Pita’s The Mother with Jonathan Goddard?

It was a challenge for me. I love and trust Arthur because we match in views and friendship. He is my dear friend and everything that he does resonates with me. He offered this work, and when I read this fairytale I immediately said yes, while pondering the ways I would play that role since I have never been a mother and never known this feeling. There were plenty of religious things for me as well, so I had questions about this story. I could not imagine the staging or how it should look. I said yes, because I trust his vision.

There wasn’t any special preparation – we have been gathering in the studio for a month and collaborated together on staging. During this process, we searched and explored our characters to understand them.  It is great when such remarkable people like Jonathan, Arthur, and our musicians co-create this world and the characters together. I didn’t have to do anything special for it – we created it together.

'The Mother' featuring Natalia Osipova photo by Anastasia Tikhonova
‘The Mother’ featuring Natalia Osipova photo by Anastasia Tikhonova

When we did the run-through of the play for the first time, I realised what exactly the character was that I was playing. I understood the culminating moments and other important things. At that moment, I lost faith in myself, I thought I couldn’t do it, comparing myself to John who changed characters many times during the play while I was suffering for an hour and a half, and I thought it would be difficult to do so.

The final run gave me an understanding of how to play that character. It was great, though it was not classical ballet. Of course, it is a dance drama, I would say even a dance play. It is rather a story we tell through movements. The intensity of that existence on the stage is even harder for me than in a classical performance. I understand if I would dance and feel nothing it would be clearly seen and the audience would leave the place – this is not only about me doing beautiful jumps.

How do you find the emotions to tell the dark story of The Mother, a story that you haven’t lived through that’s very painful?  

My soul reacts to it – we performed three shows in Moscow in a row, the next day I came to London and I had to work all week, dancing in Romeo and Juliet and it was hard to wake up every morning because of fatigue. I still feel echoes from those performances. The play is indeed very hard. When I play this character, I assume this situation happening to me on the stage. It is really difficult every time and every time I hope I don’t feel so bad, but then it repeats.

Maybe there is a reason to experience it, because at the end of the play I feel I had to go through it and tell this to the audience. We should talk about other types of love because there are things like motherly love, its trials and sacrifices. Probably the deepest feeling is a mother’s love for her child. So why not tell such a story. Personally, for me, it is obvious. But many people ask why we stage such dark plays. It is done to show light in life and give an understanding of how beautiful life is and how love can be strong. It’s all about this for me.

THE MOTHER featuring Natalia Osipova and Jonathan Goddard photo Mikah Smillie
THE MOTHER featuring Natalia Osipova and Jonathan Goddard photo Mikah Smillie

Are people surprised that you are doing this very dark role?

No, those people who know me aren’t surprised at all. They know I’m fearless and there’s a lot of contrast in me, and that I like dramas and strong characters, so it is not surprising at all.

It’s very emotionally challenging, but what about the physical challenge? How does it feel to perform Arthur Pita’s choreography?  

I’ve done many works in contemporary dance on my own and with Arthur, sometimes we co-create. It’s not so complicated, because I’ve found a common language with him because we have been working together for some time. Although young dancers perform better than me, I try to maintain the standards. We feel the same emotional vibes.

The most difficult thing is that there’s deep despair, I often throw myself on the floor, crawl, hurt my knees, run and jump. After a show I feel like I’ve been severely beaten, my body is bruised, my kneecaps are smashed, every limb is scratched, muscles are bloated and it’s dangerous since I can get serious injuries incompatible with classical ballet. Since I do every moment desperately I think I should take care of myself because it was scary to look at my legs in the mirror the last time!

Why have you decided to tackle contemporary dance at the height of your classical career?

What will I be able to do when I get older? I do not understand this “I can’t dance classic anymore, so let me dance something easier,” – it is not easier!  It is not easy at all if you want to dance such physical, hard choreography that is really complicated. It means this will be impossible. If we discuss the way young contemporary dancers move, this can be described as a phenomenon. Physics lets them do everything. What then would I do in the future? I could not just start dancing contemporary because I can’t perform the classic style, because my legs do not obey me anymore.

THE MOTHER featuring Natalia Osipova and Jonathan Goddard photo by Kenny Mathieson
THE MOTHER featuring Natalia Osipova and Jonathan Goddard photo by Kenny Mathieson

Everyone thinks they are doing it because they become old and cannot perform the classic style so they stick to the contemporary one. However, the level of performance changes if you start doing it when you grow old. They are trying to make it look contemporary, but only a few can do it at the proper level. Only Sylvie Guillem performs it incredibly, and I have not seen  someone else doing it as real contemporary. I don’t understand this neo-classic style when you are putting on pointe shoes and throwing legs in different directions. It looks doubtful. That is why you have to learn it if you like it.

I constantly learn and try to do it while my body allows me to do it. Why? Because I want it and this interests me a lot. I can’t live without it because the classics itself can be quite boring. One needs to have physical capabilities to do the tasks. If you start doing it when you are 40 or 50 probably it’s not going to happen. For Sylvie Guillem, it’s not about her skills, but an innate gift. She is a genius born to dance everything. As I have mentioned I don’t like when a contemporary dance is presented in the form of stretching and throwing legs in different directions, as an image of modern dance. It is really boring for me and I think that dance should not be heading down this path. I believe this is the wrong way of development for dance and there’s nothing interesting in it.

See the full video and podcast interview with Natalia.

Don’t miss your chance to see Natalia Osipova in The Mother at Southbank 20-22 June.