Audiences the world over know just how exquisitely Natalia Osipova dances on pointe. But from time to time, this iconic classical ballerina likes to kick off those toe-shoes, turn aside from the repertoire that has underpinned her rise to fame and do something completely different: she takes on the alternative challenges of contemporary movement.

Her latest project is a distinctly dark, dramatic dance piece by one of her favourite choreographers and collaborators, Arthur Pita. Called The Mother, it has an original score by Frank Moon and Dave Price, designs by Yann Seabra and it premieres at the EICC at the end of next week.

With a scenario based on the harrowing story by Hans Christian Andersen, the piece speaks to Moscow-born Osipova’s passion for creating intense and interesting characters. By her own admission, she didn’t warm to childhood ballet lessons because they were mostly repetitions of exercises at the barre.

At one stage she even wanted to stop. But when those exercises morphed into dance that had character, the 12-year-old Osipova was hooked. All her energies became focussed on putting emotion and feeling into her work: mastering steps was never going to be enough – those steps had to express what, and who, the roles were about. That commitment to ‘under the skin’ interpretation has never faded: it drives her artistry still.

There is, however, a restless curiosity in her – a need to push beyond what she has, aged just 32, already achieved. There have to be new challenges, and in Arthur Pita, she has found the best kind of accomplice on her ‘off-roading’ adventures. When I meet Osipova at the EICC in late November, The Mother is still coming together in the studio but – courtesy of an interpreter – she soon pinpoints why it is that Pita has become her go-to choreographer in contemporary terms. “He understands me,” she says. “I think he sees sides to me that I don’t even know myself” A mischievous little laugh escapes her, here. “Also we both have this dark side... I like to show the dark side that is in people, and Arthur helps me to do that. He also has a very unusual, theatrical approach, and an attention to detail – he uses such things very cleverly and for me, that’s fantastic.”

After a short, thoughtful, pause she continues. “I think Arthur recognises the ‘me’ that is really complicated, really emotional. For me there is no ‘inbetween’. If something is ‘up’, it is extreme, if it’s sadness – it’s extreme. Not everybody understands or accepts me like this – Arthur does.”

Coming up against other people’s blinkered expectations – especially when they err on the side of conventional casting – seems to have strengthened Osipova’s resolve to be true to herself, true to her art and true to how she responds to a role. Happily Arthur Pita appreciates the singularities in her creativity and tailors his choreographies to take full advantage of them.

In their first venture together, Facada (2014) he wittily subverted and reversed the Giselle story by having Natalia Osipova’s jilted bride dancing dementedly on her faithless lover’s grave. For a subsequent ‘walk on the wild side’, he fashioned Run Mary Run (2016) in which Osipova, in a bright green mini-dress, be-wigged in a shrieking red beehive (redolent of Amy Winehouse’s hairdo) and garish stiletto heels embraced the teen-dream-angst of the Shangri-La’s 1960’s ‘death discs’ with a blistering intensity that took some of her faithful fans by shocked surprise. She might have risen from the grave, but Giselle this was not. It was contemporary, performative, and – partnered by Sergei Polunin in leather-clad bad-boy mode – Osipova was no ethereal wraith.

There’s just a hint of a sigh, but Osipova is actually smiling when she says “there were some comments – maybe angry, maybe disappointed – that said ‘how can she run around like a fool, with dirty feet, dressed in God knows what, and she’s a classic ballerina?’ But those people didn’t understand how I felt doing that role. How I felt when I was running and running. It was about being not a fairy, or a princess, but a woman.” She could say the same about The Mother, in which she is in direct confrontation with Death and battling every hostile circumstance in an attempt to keep her sickly child alive.

“When Arthur brought the book to me, I knew he had ideas for how we could do this,“ she says. “But he has added in other things – Russian elements, actually. He has set it in 1960s/70s Russia where there is an atmosphere of oppression, and families are living in flats that all look the same – same carpets, same everything. People were afraid of telephone calls... even that is in the story. He has also found ways of introducing the other characters the Mother meets on her journey, but we decided we wanted only one dancer to be them all.”

Enter another of Osipova’s favourite artists, Jonathan Goddard, who will shape-shift through various characters – and even strap on high heels – as her partner throughout. “Jonathan is a very charismatic dancer,” she says. “I remember watching him on-stage, noticing the way he transforms, how he can reveal different temperaments. Not everybody can do that. And we have worked together before, so now we are really comfortable together. He has also worked with Arthur, so when we are in the studio it feels like a wonderful sharing of ideas, of process, of being able to try things out really freely.” It sounds as if the bond that binds them together is mutual trust, backed by respect for each other’s willingness to abandon comfort zones and take risks.

The Mother’s journey demands huge sacrifices from her – is that how Osipova sees a career in dance? She smiles. “The love of the mother for the child is an unconditional love – and that is the love I have for my dancing, my creating of a role. I feel I am living it. So I have to give away everything I have to the role, to this other character so as they can live. Otherwise, I can never be happy with it. It is the only way, and you can’t ever regret it. I truly believe that if you have been given this gift of a talent, you should not look for the easy way out. You have to use it to its full extent – for me that can be in contemporary dance just as much as in classical ballet. It is all about expressing the story, the character, in the fullest way you can.”

I wonder, aloud, if she’d ever thought about portraying Anna Karenina. The peal of amused laughter that fills the room is a delight. “That is Tolstoy,” she says. “Russian people are divided into those who love Tolstoy and those who love Dostoevsky. I’m the second type, and I believe Arthur is the same. Dark imaginations, very dark human nature. Being honest with yourself about that, and about your own dark side. Sometimes stories so dark it’s hard to re-read them even. But we need those stories.” Fortunately Pita is prepared to choreograph them, and Osipova is ready to dance them with every inch of her remarkable being.

The Mother is being presented by Bird & Carrot Productions for two nights only – Fri 21 & Sat 22 December - at the Pentland Theatre, Pleasance at EICC.

Tickets from or 020 7619 6868,