Interview: Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova

© Tristam Kenton
Posted: Tue Jul 5 2011

Ballet's latest real-life couple, Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova, bring a bit of true love to 'Romeo & Juliet'

It's the perfect love story: the two most exciting dancers in the world today, recently engaged, dancing the most famous star cross'd lovers of all, Romeo and Juliet.

Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova stole all the headlines when Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet came to London last year. Vasiliev's enormous jumps alone left hardened critics drooling, while Osipova's blistering technique came allied with compelling artistry. Casting must have been a no-brainer when Danish ballet director Peter Schaufuss decided to revive Frederick Ashton's little-seen 1955 version of 'Romeo & Juliet'.

Onstage the couple each have a huge presence. Vasiliev, in particular, bursts with leonine charisma. But the first thing you notice as they rehearse in a south London studio is how small they are, and how young (Vasiliev is 22, Osipova 25). He has raffish curls and a cheeky grin; she looks shockingly pale with her dyed black hair framing delicate features.

It's only their second day in the studio learning the ballet, so they're tentative, marking the steps. But it only takes one jeté where Vasiliev launches Osipova into the air and the whole room pops with energy. In the middle of a sequence, the couple have a minor spat in Russian, but ten minutes later they're hugging and giggling. Vasiliev is the joker. He goofs around, makes Osipova laugh, then launches into multiple pirouettes, nonchalantly reeling off at least ten revolutions, playing up for his audience (ie. me). Osipova, meanwhile, is the serious, focused one. When Vasiliev wants to finish, she makes him stay and practise, repeating and perfecting.

When we sit down to chat, Vasiliev clowns around, hooking the straps of his leather holdall around his nose and making stupid faces. Osipova sits still, coolly reserved, speaking in quiet Russian while her fiancé translates, but it's been a long day and he doesn't want to be here. They're dying to get back to the hotel. 'I want to go eat! I want meat!' he groans. 'And we want to watch “Desperate Housewives”!' he says, proving that it's definitely not all high-brow in the ballet world.

Vasiliev's English isn't bad but right now he's tired, his brain full of Ashton's steps and he's finding it an effort to grasp the right words. When trying to explain how audiences in Moscow fall into two camps, one positive, one viciously critical, he resorts to a 'Star Wars' metaphor and a Darth Vader impression. London audiences, however, have been very appreciative of the pair, and the dancers didn't hesitate at accepting the gig here, one of an increasing number of guest spots around the world. They can't have much time together when they're not dancing, I say. 'We have all night together,' says Osipova, smiling
to herself.

Vasiliev is pleased that Ashton's 'Romeo & Juliet' will be a chance for them to show off their emotional range, rather than just their virtuosic techniques. In fact, Vasiliev is dismissive of his physical gifts. 'Technique, for me, it's very easy. I can do everything: pirouettes, jumps. We've danced many performances where we do amazing tricks and steps, but it's not important. What's important is spirit, emotion, drama.'

Osipova has helped Vasiliev bring real emotion to his performance, he says. So when you're onstage, I ask him, are you dancing to Juliet, or Natasha [Osipova's nickname]? 'Juliet,' he says, instantly. 'But Juliet is… Natasha.' 'When we dance together it's not like two people, we're like one,' says Osipova. 'We can't be separate, only together - one performance and one story.'

There have been hundreds of Romeos and Juliets over the years, what do this couple want to bring to these well-worn characters? 'We want to live this performance,' says Vasiliev, 'we want to be true.' And while onstage, true love is extreme emotion, longing, lust and tragedy. It's nice to know that in real life, it's getting tucked up in bed together to watch 'Desperate Housewives'.

Sir Frederick Ashton's Romeo and Juliet, London Coliseum, July 11-17,