This short film captures an extraordinary and moving performance of Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain. It is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, and a tribute to the future of the city that New York City Ballet calls home.
It seemed preordained that Robert Fairchild would one day play Jerry Mulligan, the World War II vet and expat artist portrayed by Gene Kelly in the 1951 film An American in Paris. “Without Gene Kelly, I wouldn’t be dancing,” says Fairchild, a principal at New York City Ballet. “In Singin’ in the Rain—my God, he’s incredible. I saw An American in Paris later on, and it’s the same magic.” Onstage, Fairchild—who started out doing jazz and tap before following his sister to ballet class—strongly calls to mind the Hollywood legend. “He’s handsome, slightly cheeky,” and has a “nonchalant, casual ease,” says Christopher Wheeldon
Below is a copy of an interesting interview with Natalia Osipova, by Sarah Crompton.
Photo is by Nigel Nortington.
Long hair flying, arms pumping, hips wriggling, the great Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova is giving her all to a go-go dance, 1960’s style. She looks incredibly happy. Across the rehearsal room, her on stage partner, and off stage lover, Sergei Polunin is doing the same, struggling to synchronise his jutting peacock head with his swinging arms.
“It’s like marking your territory,” says the choreographer Arthur Pita, as he explains the pattern of the complex syncopated steps. Osipova giggles. She has an infectious laugh and a broad smile, that when it breaks, softens her serious, dainty features. In this room, with the man she loves, making a new work written for her by a leading contemporary dance maker for a run at Sadler’s Wells starting next month, she is in her element. “This project is important for me,” she says. “This is my dream, and how I have chosen to express my personality.”
It has been a rollercoaster year for the dancer. First there is her relationship with Polunin, the charismatic bad boy who stormed out of the Royal Ballet in 2012, pursued by stories of drug taking and unhappiness. They finally made their relationship public at a press conference to announce the Wells project in November 2015. It has changed her life, but it hasn’t always been easy. “I think we have both changed - a feeling as strong as this one changes people,” she says. “We were both quite independent, professionally and otherwise, but now we have made some sacrifices. And it wasn’t always easy. We argued quite a lot, and sometimes we thought we shouldn’t live together, we don’t have to go through all that. But as it turned out, we can’t live without each other for more than two days. There must be something he gives me and I give him that we couldn’t find anywhere else.”
She laughs again, slightly embarrassed. “Probably this is something that everyone who is in love says. We have been together just a year, and it is probably not enough to make conclusions… But this is the way it is at the moment.”
The couple met last summer. Osipova was making a guest appearance away from the Royal Ballet - which she had joined full time just after Polunin left it - and needed someone to dance Albrecht opposite her Giselle at La Scala, Milan. Her mother suggested Polunin; she was more apprehensive when the couple started to go out. “Though now she loves him to bits,” Osipova says. “When we got together, people thought I had gone off the rails. Everybody gave me a piece of advice. But I have always done what I wanted. And if my heart tells me this is the way I should do it, then I do it this way”.
She told me this back in January. By April, when we meet again, in the rehearsal room at the Place dance centre in Bloomsbury, the relationship feels fully established. The couple are working on one of the duets they will perform this month in the Sadler’s Wells programme, and again at the Edinburgh International Festival in August. In breaks, she lies across Polunin’s legs, teasing him gently in whispered Russian, touching him tenderly on the cheek. They clearly enjoy working together. “I think as artists we have to dance together, and together we could come up with many interesting projects,” Osipova says simply.
This piece, about a young couple in love who encounter tragedy, is one of their first joint projects. The second is a more abstract duet by Russell Maliphant, which is joined on the programme by a trio choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui for Osipova and two male dancers, Jason Kittelberger and James O'Hara.
Polunin has said he wants only to dance with Osipova. She is more pragmatic, while longing for the opportunities for them to perform together to expand. “I find it quite interesting to be with him on stage, because I think I am quite a strong person as a performer, and I find it difficult to find a man who is equally strong. I quite often dictate and tell them what to do,” she says, the words rushing out in quick Russian. She pauses while they are translated, then continues. “I like to take my partners hand and tell him how I feel. But with Sergei, he can do the same to me. He can tell me his story. It is a big thing. You don’t often come across a partner like that.”
Eventually, she hopes Polunin will be able to join her on stage at the Royal Ballet, the company at which he trained but then left in a blaze of headlines. She is committed to staying there. “Nothing has changed. Maybe they were a little bit worried when they thought I might leave as well,” she says, laughing. “But I am pretty sure this is my company, and I’m stable, sticking there. I think it is Sergei’s company as well. It used to be his home [Polunin moved from his native Ukraine to the Royal Ballet School in 2003, when he was 13], and his way of dancing and his style are so suitable for that place. I would be really happy if there was a chance for him to come and dance there - and I think the audience would as well.”
The second blip in her progress this past year with the Royal has been an injury sheet requiring regular cancellations and rests. “It was a strange season. I didn’t have a lot of energy. I felt tired,” she explains. Near its close, she dislocated her hip, which caused her to miss a number of performances, including several in Strapless, the ballet Christopher Wheeldon created around her. She managed to dance only one Giselle - her favourite classical ballet - and gave no sign of injury in her airy loveliness and deep, romantic intensity. But if you watch her rehearse on a video made by the Royal Ballet at the time, you can see her grimace as she moves her leg. Even today, there are moments when a spasm of pain crosses her face.
“My injuries make me quite upset, to be honest,” she says gravely. “But little victories make it better. I thought at one point I wouldn’t be able to dance for a year, but I am lucky so far that I have never had any injuries that have stopped me dancing completely. Sometime in performance, I feel pain, but that is familiar to millions of dancers.”
Her difficulties have made her reassess her workload; she has pulled out of summer performances in London with the visiting Bolshoi Ballet, the company she left in 2011. “The doctor told me that to achieve my standard again, I need to be clever and selective,” she says. “It is not nice for audiences if I am not at my standard.
In deciding to focus on what she describes as “the repertoire that’s interesting for me”, Osipova is - perhaps surprisingly - choosing to concentrate on dancing the classics while she is still in her prime. “I’m 29 now,” she says, pulling a face as if it is a very old age. “I think I probably have another 5 years. I haven’t done a lot of classics. I’ve done a lot of dramatic, character roles. But when you start carrying injuries, you realise all of a sudden that you won’t have as much time as you hoped.”
Surely she can carry on a bit longer? She pulls that expressive face. “Maybe 5 more years after that - and for those I will be dancing more dramatic roles.” For now, she is dividing her time between the very traditional and the contemporary. She acknowledges that shaping her body to works by choreographers such as Pita, Maliphant and Cherkaoui is difficult, but it is a challenge she is ready for.
“When people say that, for classically trained dancers, nothing is difficult, it’s not true. As a classical dancer, you are always told that when you have this tree inside of you” - she mimics the straight strength of a ballerina’s core position - “it helps you to get in every ballet position. In contemporary dance, you are full of fluidity, which is completely different. Everything moves in your body, and it’s great” - now she acts out extreme flexibility, waving her arms and legs for emphasis - “but the danger is, we don’t know this modern dance world, we are not trained in this. I look at dancers like James and Jason, and I don’t understand how they just fall on the floor so simply. I don’t know how to do that. Only when you move like that all day, in the evening you can fall the way they need you to fall.”
Cherkaoui has, however, been amazed by just how versatile Osipova has proved. “I have rarely seen anyone so strong,” he says. “Usually, when I am with ballet dancers’ they have very strong legs or very strong feet, but their arms are not as strong, or the back is a little bit too soft. But she is really powerful, and at the same time she is honest. She knows what the right thing to do is, beyond any sort of style. She just does what’s right. There is something about her. She absolutely makes new rules and is straightforward. There is a sense of devotion towards choreography that is extremely generous to a choreographer.”
Given what an extraordinary classical dancer she is, why does Osipova want to venture into a world where there are, as she admits, “so many people who could probably do it better than you”? She is quite clear in her response: “this is how I want to express my personality. To mix classical and contemporary. This is my wish.”
Such a statement implies boundless confidence in her abilities. Yet over a series of meetings, I begin to notice that the bravura brilliance she exudes on stage, the seeming strength that Cherkaoui values, is tempered by a much less assured personality.
“I’m not a confident person,” she says, pulling her face in mock despair. “But I am confident I will work my best. I will never dictate. I will do what the choreographer wants - and if necessary I will suffer. I sometimes get so nervous, I just want to run away before a show. And my mum says, ‘Well, OK, go and clean the streets then!’” She laughs at this expression of tough love. “The older I am, the more nervous I become, because I know people expect so much from me.”
She shrugs her shoulders at her own hopelessness. Watching her with Polunin, it’s clear she not only trusts and loves him, but admires his attitude to his career, which is so very different from her own anxiety.
“I just look at Sergei, and he says, ‘when I go on stage, I do it for myself, and I find that satisfying’ - and I learn from him. I think that is the best way of doing it. He is never worried. But maybe that is not the way I am. Maybe I need to be nervous to achieve what I achieve on stage. Maybe that’s what makes me happy.”