Russian Ambition

August 26, 2008

It was a brief YouTube clip of her Kitri that set balletomanes abuzz. From the first moment that Bolshoi starlet Natalia Osipova was spotted in a short solo from Don Quixote, the link flew from computer to computer around the world. Her performance commanded the stage with sparkling personality and breathtaking technique. Tossing off multiple pirouettes with a laugh, she flew through the air, her head almost touching her back leg, with such exuberance that audience and fellow dancers alike cheered her on. Via cyberspace, her fame was well-established long before most of her newfound fans saw her in the flesh. Within four years, she rose through the ranks of the Bolshoi Ballet to first soloist. Under Bolshoi Ballet director Alexei Ratmansky, she has been given the opportunity to perform many roles and to develop a partnership with the equally exciting dancer Ivan Vasiliev.


My first live sighting of her was in 2006 in Southampton when the Bolshoi was on a regional tour of Britain. It wasn’t in some high-powered role, rather as one of the shepherdesses in Act II of Spartacus. But there was something mesmerizing about the way she skipped, light as a feather while clutching her arms around her head, that foretold of a star-in-waiting. That summer, the company returned to London where Osipova, still a corps member, performed the full Don Quixote to cheers and thunderous applause. The following year, partnered by the 18-year-old wunderkind Ivan Vasiliev, she again set the stage ablaze with her daredeviltry, pyrotechnics, and flamboyance. The tour also showed us more of her talent, and she received the 2007 top female dancer prize from the British Critics Circle National Dance Awards—a great honor considering how many fine and famous ballerinas graced the stages of Britain that year.


As Gamzatti in La Bayadère, she was an imperious, hard young woman who would not contemplate losing the affections of her betrothed to a mere temple dancer. Her whole performance was one of cold, calculating command, and her nuptial pas de deux with Solor was performed with possessive authority. In Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream, she showed a comic streak. In Tharp’s In the Upper Room, she danced with a vitality that was hypnotic for its fearless, slick, and fluid technique—all done with a terrific sense of enjoyment. For this role she received the Golden Mask award in Moscow last spring.


But things could have been very different and we might have been watching an Olympic champion rather than a ballerina. Osipova, 22, started out as a determined gymnast, with eyes on an eventual Olympic medal. A back injury sent her off to ballet classes for strengthening, but she was not a willing dancer. Despite being accepted into the Moscow Choreographic Academy, she felt she was just biding time until she could return to the gym floor.


“When I started ballet, I didn’t really like the classes,” she told me. “I was too flexible. While my limbs flew up easily in class, I didn’t have the control needed. I also realize now that I wasn’t a serious student. I believed that this ballet instruction was just a small period in my life and that soon I would be getting back to the sports world, which I loved so much.” But she eventually realized her back problem would prevent her from returning to gymnastics, and started to accept ballet. “It wasn’t until I performed onstage in a school concert and heard the appreciative applause of the audience that I suddenly realized that ballet was really important for me. I began to work hard. I’d danced a Russian dance and enjoyed wearing a costume, putting on makeup and becoming someone else. But I especially liked the applause—and,” she added with a cheeky grin, “I still do.”


Ballet competitions followed. At 17, in 2003, she won the Grand Prix in Luxembourg. In 2005, as a new corps member of the Bolshoi Ballet, she won the bronze in the Moscow International Competition despite having to cope with rehearsals and performances for two company premieres at the same time. In November 2005, she stepped out of the corps for a night to perform the full Don Quixote with competition partner Andrei Bolotin, thus winning more fans.


So, after all these hard-punching bravura heroines, what about lyricism? When Johan Kobborg went to Moscow to stage his version of La Sylphide on the Bolshoi in 2007, he selected Osipova as the lead. Suddenly, in place of the powerhouse bravura and fiendishly technical challenges that she relishes, she transformed into a silky Sylph. She skimmed the stage like a smooth stone on a millpond. She offered the lightest of jumps, which exploded like milkweed pods. As her tarlatan billowed out around her, she gave the sensation of her feet not touching the ground. But she was also a sassy Sylph who delighted in teasing poor James. As in all her performances, Osipova immersed herself in her character so much that she was living the role rather than just playing a part.


In her debut as Giselle last fall she was a peasant girl with gusto rather than a demure seamstress. Her mad scene was so vivid that she received a phone call from her mother in the intermission, checking if she was all right. As a Wili, the ballerina born to balance on pointe evidenced fluidity and grace while remaining strong in character.


So where does she go for technique polishing and filigree detailing of all these roles? Osipova never hesitates to praise her coach Marina Kondratieva, who is the complete antithesis of the young dancer. The soft-spoken, introverted, and gentle Kondratieva was a Bolshoi ballerina of the ’60s and ’70s much loved for her lyricism, phrasing, and musicality. It was a surprise to everyone that Osipova pleaded with her to take her on. Kondratieva guides her pupil in the ways of long held Bolshoi traditions, regularly reining in Osipova, who would rather bring out her personality onstage than dance by the book. “Marina Viktorovna is a genius in explaining everything to me,” says Osipova. “We work out every minute detail from eyelash to fingertips.”


The pretty young Russian with raven-black hair and heavy mascara-ed eyes is a glutton for hard work, a perfectionist who demands 100 percent of herself even in rehearsals. She will ruminate over anything that she feels was not her best, and her brow will furrow with displeasure. But after some walking to and fro, she continues, no matter how tired, until the steps are perfected. Dance is a propelling force inside her and nothing can stop it—not even the virus and high temperature she suffered on her debut as Medora in Le Corsaire in April. Despite this, she danced full-out in a role well-suited for her with partner Ivan Vasiliev, who was also making his debut as Conrad and who won plaudits for his macho, comic bravura.


These two dynamos make for an exhilarating pairing. Anything can happen, and they set the audiences cheering. Osipova turns on a dime in her speedy multiple pirouettes and devours the stage while reaching the heights in her flights across it. Vasiliev, in true competitive spirit and with a great sense of fun and joy, will match her, streaking like an arrow in airborne jetés and spinning like a top in his jaw-dropping turns. The two of them have become the darlings of the international ballet world, not to mention they were each a Dance Magazine “25 to Watch,” she in 2007, he in 2008. During the festival of Ballet Nacional de Cuba in the fall of 2006, they challenged the Latins’ renowned virtuosity to flash their unique brand of excitement to crowds who erupted with enthusiastic and passionate cheering.


While we can anticipate many more sparkling jewels in Osipova’s tiara to be unveiled in the next few years, it is her bravura that her devoted fans want to see most. She is often invited to guest with many companies—usually performing “Kitri, Kitri, Kitri” she laughingly states—bringing the house down as in St. Petersburg, where she repeated her 32 spot-on fouettés at the Kirov. She admits that her life as a gymnast would have been very short-lived, so she’s happy how things have worked out.


“Ballet is my destiny,” she declares solemnly.


Margaret Willis, a contributing editor to
Dance Magazine based in London, has been covering the Bolshoi Ballet since 1977.


From top: Photo © Marc Haegman; as Gamzatti in La Bayadère. Photo © Marc Haegman; in costume for La Sylphide. Photo by Dan Howell.