The 51st HK Arts Festival

Natalia Osipova, Ballet's Force of Nature

Text / Marisa C. Hayes

Natalia Osipova has been called "the most sought after ballerina in the world" and one look at the dancer's demanding schedule proves it. Hailing from Moscow, today Osipova is a star at The Royal Ballet of London, where she holds the highest rank of principal dancer, but she is equally known as an acclaimed guest artist gracing the world's most elite stages.

Currently in the prime of her career, Osipova is already considered a legend, such is her international influence. Never mind that "legend" is usually a title bestowed upon artists later in life or even posthumously. According to one of Osipova's coaches, retired ballerina Natalia Makarova, "you can never be indifferent watching her." Indeed, Osipova experienced a meteoric rise to fame at a young age that has resulted in a diverse repertoire staged by the world's most distinguished choreographers and coaches. Always humble and grateful for the opportunities that her hard work and innate talent have generated, the ballerina recently stated, "I'm so happy! I have everything in my career."

A Dance Legend in the Making

In her native Russia, Osipova came to dance via gymnastics, not unlike the French ballerina Sylvie Guillem, another revered figure of the dance world. Osipova's natural flexibility and strength made her a perfect candidate for ballet studies at which she excelled under the tutelage of Moscow's State Academy of Choreography. In 2004 she joined the corps de ballet of the Bolshoi Ballet and impressed audiences the moment she stepped on stage, quickly climbing the ranks of the prestigious company. Cast in solo roles within a year of joining the Bolshoi Ballet, Osipova began to receive international invitations to collaborate with the world's leading ballet companies, including the American Ballet Theatre and La Scala in Milan. This gave the young dancer a taste of different repertoires and performers, offering new experiences that Osipova cherished.

After performing seven years for the Bolshoi Ballet, Osipova began to feel limited in her work with the company and continued to seek new opportunities to expand her artistry. Upon leaving the Bolshoi, she made the bold decision to freelance for two years without a permanent contract or affiliated troupe. Enter the Royal Ballet, where Osipova spent two months as a guest star in the dual role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake opposite Carlos Acosta. During her stay with the London-based company, the dancer fell in love with the Royal Ballet's dancers and its rich repertoire that combines both narrative classics and contemporary cutting edge productions.

As a result, Osipova has added another accolade to her already illustrious career, creating a bridge between contemporary and classical dance, as the ambitious performer tackles new creations alongside historic ballets with the same level of enthusiasm and work ethic. While she may have burst onto the scene with virtuosic intensity in ballets like Don Quixote, Osipova is a brave performer whose recent undertakings prove she isn't afraid to embrace different approaches to movement, from experimental to the humor one often finds in dance theatre. "I am always learning", she modestly proclaims in a documentary dedicated to her career thus far.

Expanding Horizons

Osipova's sense of exploration inspired Australian choreographer Merryl Tankard to reimagine her 1988 solo Two Feet in a new version specially tailored to the Russian dancer. Like Osipova, Tankard is no stranger to greatness. An early member of Pina Bausch's famed Tanztheater Wuppertal company in Germany, Tankard has performed with leading artists internationally, and choreographs for some of Europe and Australia's finest dancers. In Two Feet Osipova, Tankard has drawn upon her expertise in dance theatre to create an expressive set of vignettes that display both Osipova's physical talents and her acting range, from absurd to tragic.

Two Feet Osipova shares archival images of a young Osipova through video footage and photographs, as the dancer recounts her youth and the strange rituals she committed to as a student in order to succeed as a ballerina. In the performance, Tankard merges Osipova's personal history with that of another Russian dancer, the historic Olga Spessivtzeva, who like Osipova was celebrated for her interpretation of the Romantic ballet Giselle. In Two Feet fact and fiction become merged in a surreal triptych between Osipova, Spessivtzeva and the fictional persona of Giselle. Interweaving comedy and pathos, Osipova reveals unexpected depths to how dance and spoken dialogue can interact in the dance theatre genre to produce meaningful explorations of history and memory.

In Osipova's latest touring project, Force of Nature, the ballerina combines her keen sense of experimentation to create a diverse programme of dance works that display the full range of her talents. Joining forces with a select handful of her favourite partners, including Reece Clarke of the Royal Ballet, Osipova interprets some of ballet's most iconic choreography, such as Sleeping Beauty Act III Pas de Deux. But the program is also a tribute to the living choreographers who have enlivened Osipova's repertoire, such as Alexey Ratmansky, arguably the world's leading choreographer for classical ballet. Infusing classical technique with new rhythms and nuances, his Valse Triste is a tour de force for Osipova's emotional commitment. Sidi Larbi Charkaoui, Europe's most sought-after contemporary choreographer with whom Osipova has collaborated on multiple occasions, is also a prominent addition to the programme. His fluid earth-bound style is on full view in Qtub, a trio for Osipova, Jason Kittelberger (who is also the ballerina's partner in real life, off stage) and Joseph Kudra. It's a testament to Osipova's talent that she can oscillate with ease between the suspended verticality of classical ballet and the grounded modernity of Charkaoui's choreography in the same programme.

Force of Nature reflects Osipova's commitment to what she calls the art of voyaging: "The role isn't the same every time. I like to try different languages, dance is so vast", she has commented. There seems to be no end to the praise that Osipova has garnered from audiences and critics alike. They have cited her steely strength, her theatricality, and her supernatural abilities. As such, Force of Nature is not an exaggeration, but an apt description of the dynamic and generous performer, who will perform both Two Feet and Force of Nature during the 2023 Hong Kong Arts Festival.