Friday, August 12, 2016

Ballerina Natalia Osipova and the legacy of Amy Winehouse By Mary Brennan

Photo Credit: Nikolai Gulakov
FOR THOUSANDS of ballet fans worldwide, the name Natalia Osipova is linked, indelibly, in their hearts and minds with one talismanic, classic role: Giselle. Choreographer Arthur Pita had another haunted persona in mind, however, when Osipova tasked him with creating a new work for the triple bill of contemporary pieces she’ll be performing as part of the Edinburgh International Festival’s dance programme. His inspiration? “Amy Winehouse – and then, because of her album Back to Black, the 60’s girl group The Shangri-Las.” Pita cites those charismatic singers as the starting point for Run Mary Run, his one-act duet for Osipova and her partner (off-stage as well as on) Sergei Polunin. If this sounds like left-field thinking with a retro hair style, Pita provides persuasive reasons for putting one of the ballet world’s most luminous stars in a garishly red beehive wig and the other, Polunin, in the archetypal “rebel boy” uniform of white t-shirt, blue jeans, black leather jacket. “Natalia wanted a piece with narrative and character,” he explains. “And that is quite a challenge when you only have two people on-stage – there are no other characters for them to react to. So you have to find a structure that is really all about their relationship. And make it interesting for audiences to watch, as well as for them to dance. I decided that maybe we should go backwards – start with the end of their lives, with death, and then travel back, bit by bit, to the moment when they met as teenagers, and it was absolutely love at first sight.” Mutual attraction doesn’t necessarily produce happy endings. Pita had seen a documentary about Amy Winehouse, and had been struck by aspects of her relationship with (her then husband) Blake Fielder-Civil. “I’d always loved her as a singer, I had all her music, I loved her persona,” he says, “but I’d come to feel there was something disturbing about her intensity towards him and about how she’d come off-stage, see him in the wings and just immediately latch onto his arm, as if glued there. And how he would guide her away, take charge almost. I thought that could translate into a choreography tinged with ownership and obsession. Then, thinking about how the Shangri-Las had inspired Amy’s album Back to Black – and listening to their music, and to the lyrics especially – I realised just how dramatic their songs were. People used to refer to them as ‘splatter platters’ because they were full of death and teenage heart-break. It all seemed very Amy...” Would it turn out to be very Natalia? By the time Osipova and Polunin walked into the rehearsal studio, Pita had a scenario in mind – and a sheaf of translations in his hand so that Osipova could understand exactly what the Shangri-Las were describing in the lyrics of Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand) or Dressed in Black or Past, Present and Future, songs he wanted woven into the soundtrack for his choreography. There’s a smile in his voice as recalls how Osipova “completely bought into the rhythms of the music, the dramas in it – and I think, too, that she really connected with the sad voice of Mary Weiss. It was as if she could already feel the character I was looking for. She knows these stories of love, loss, death, the after-life from the great classic roles she has made her own – Giselle, most especially. So give her a story like that, with all the little packages of emotion in it – she will just open them up and devour them, connect with them, then act them so beautifully and with such honesty.” Off-stage there is no pretence whatsoever: Osipova and Polunin are a real-life couple, their romance and relationship a source of fascination and curiosity for press and ballet fans alike. So who played Cupid? You could say Giselle did. In March 2015, Osipova was preparing to dance the role in Milan when, for various reasons, she found herself without an Albrecht. It was her mother, miles away in Moscow, who suggested that Polunin might be a suitable partner – yes, there was his “bad boy” reputation, but his talent as a dancer was never in question. An e-mail exchange later, the pair were behind closed doors, rehearsing the most romantic ballet in the classical repertoire and falling in love themselves – though not going public about their private partnership until later that year. They are now dancing together in two of the three pieces in the EIF hot ticket, Natalia Osipova and Guests – the other guests include the choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Russell Maliphant. Osipova, determined to explore new dance directions, had requested their works to be off-pointe and contemporary in technique and movement vocabulary. For Cherkaoui, this translated into a trio, Qutb (Arabic for axis or pivot) where Osipova is flanked by two male dancers in what often looks like a ritual exploration of stamina, strength and inter-dependent physicality. Sufi chants rise like incense, Osipova’s curving back-bends are breath-taking while the men – James O’Hara and Jason Kittlberger – bring a supportive muscularity to Cherkaoui’s sculptural shapes. Maliphant – unlike Cherkaoui and Pita – had never worked with Osipova before, but in Silent Echo he surely acknowledges the balletic training that informs her body as he sets up crossover points between classical and contemporary lines. Nor can he ignore Polunin’s fabulous, soaring jump. So even as Scanner’s multi-layered, technology-infused soundscape is insisting on modernity, there is still a sense of traditional pas-de-deux structure in the interactions that emerge within the moods and spaces defined by Michael Hulls’s lighting design. Run Mary Run is the end piece that catapults dance-drama into another dimension and yet, as Pita fully intended, the dark twists and quirky absurdities in his girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy story-line allow Osipova and Polunin to break out – be characters who walk, jive, smooch and rock on an 1960’s wild side, regardless of the risks and consequences. “Natalia has done so many Giselles, Swan Lakes, Don Q’s – all the big classic roles – over and over, and now she wants to push towards something new,” says Pita. “When we were talking about her doing contemporary dance, she said she wants to do it while her body can explore it quite freely.” Osipova at 30 is surely in her artistic prime, both technically and in expressive interpretation. Isn’t it too early for her to come off pointe, get grounded in contemporary? “It’s about adding knowledge and experience,” says Pita who has done something similar by working across genres, creating work for children, choreographing abstract contemporary pieces and classical ballet narratives for companies on both sides of the Atlantic. “Natalia wanted new challenges. Run Mary Run asked her to explore a completely different character from the one in Facada, an earlier piece we did together, where she was a vengeful bride who kills her faithless fiancé and dances on his grave. This narrative is about a love that exists even in the grave, but I don’t want to give too much away!” He clearly enjoys working with Osipova, and now Polunin, but admits there are challenges for him too. “You can never forget that these ballet dancers are already stars – and that audiences have come to see them and the moment when Sergei jumps, when Natalia jumps. And to see them expressing romance and tenderness, because the audience knows they are a real-life couple. I don’t think you can ignore that, but at the same time you have to bring your own ideas, your own voice to the choreography.” Not just his voice, but that of the Shangri-Las and the teenage angst they captured on 60’s vinyl. Natalia Osipova and Guests is at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh from today to Sunday. [August 12-14] Herald Scotland Edinburgh International Festival