Filming a force of nature: how to create a portrait of a dance superstar

Director Gerry Fox on the making of his new film, Force of Nature Natalia, which follows a year in the life of Royal Ballet principal dancer Natalia Osipova

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I didn’t want to make Dancer. I didn’t want to make a salacious ‘personal life’ documentary, as I truly believed that Natalia’s real life revolved primarily around working on dance itself, so I felt the film needed to be a serious, grown-up look at the process of creating dance through her eyes…and feet!

The film would follow Natalia for a year in her life, observing her at work on Royal Ballet productions as well as other, more contemporary dance, dance-theatre and modern ballet pieces during the period. It would centre around the creation and performance of a thrilling new modern ballet ‘Mother’ based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen and choreographed by Arthur Pita, winner of the South Bank Show Award for Dance. We would follow closely the whole process from scratch, observing them working together, and also with fellow dancer Jonathan Goddard, as they improvise and collaborate to bring this beautiful but dark fable to life, a demanding work for two dancers only. The camera would record them at different stages of its creation, through early rehearsals right to the first night performance in Edinburgh. Through it we would gain a unique and real sense of how a work of dance theatre emerges into the light.

The film would also explore Natalia's rich dance history through wonderful clips and never-before granted access to her personal archive. These include her dancing as a child aged five in Moscow, through the Mikhail Lavrosky ballet school and Moscow State Academy, as well as highlights from her career at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, at the American Ballet Theatre in New York and at Covent Garden in London. She will also expand on her life and history, growing up in Russia, her journey to the Opera House and ongoing relationship with Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells. I felt that showing clips of her dancing as a child to early student and Bolshoi productions would really show the viewer how she developed into the stunning dancer she is today.

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I also wanted to show intimate moments from her current life at the Royal Ballet, including rehearsals with the legendary Natalia Makarova as Osipova took on the challenge of dancing both female roles in ‘La Bayadere’. We also filmed rehearsals of a new ballet by Belgium’s star choreographer, the dynamic Sidi Larbi Cerkaoui, which he created in close collaboration with Natalia. My aim in all this was to fight my way into these rehearsals with two cameras and get as close to the action as possible. This wasn’t easy as there are a lot of understandable restrictions on filming rehearsals at major ballet companies. But I felt that if I could get in there and capture unique footage of her rehearsing with the legendary Makarova we might end up with something special on our hands.

Arthur Pita also worked on a separate duet ‘Facada’ with Natalia and her fiancé, Jason Kettelberger, and we filmed them creating and rehearsing this new piece as partners and lovers. They also rehearsed another emotionally charged dance created by Kettelberger himself in collaboration with Natalia called ‘I’m Fine‘ which they performed in Moscow alongside ‘Facada’. The two dancers talk intimately about the joys and difficulties of working together as both professional partners and lovers. The slight tension that is inevitably created by two people who are in a relationship working so closely together does come through in the film, I hope, which also gives you a strong sense of the way in which Natalia is able to collaborate with her partners. I think it is in getting her to trust the director that in the end is what makes a film like this successful; the more she trusts you the more she allows you in to the creative process and the more meaningful the footage you capture.

Finally, we filmed Natalia and Jonathan Goddard rehearsing their duet Flutter by Ivan Perez, which they had recently performed at Sadler's Wells, extracts of which also appear in the film. Again it is the intimacy of the rehearsal footage that makes it quite special, having that unique vantage point of observation combined with the dancers explaining their methods both through words and physical gestures that hopefully gives you a deeper understanding of the way in which dancers work together and with the choreographer to bring a new work into being.

“When Natalia crashed into me while dancing with her partner, I finally realised I’d probably succeeded in getting as close to the rehearsal process as it was possible to go…”

Through this rich tapestry of unique improvisatory and rehearsal footage, performance clips and interview, I very much hoped to present a multi-layered portrait of this stunning leading dancer of her day, someone who really encompasses all forms of dance. It’s that aspect that I found so fascinating and was determined to show in the film.

The film is shot in a close, handheld fashion with wide lenses so we get the strongest sense of Natalia as a ballerina at the height of her powers. When Natalia crashed into me (as second cameraman) while dancing with her partner Jason I finally realised I’d probably succeeded in getting as close to the rehearsal process as it was possible to go without actually injuring the dancer! Natalia was amazingly generous in letting us observe her dance work so closely, saying that she is so focussed on dancing that she isn’t that aware of the cameras, but I am certain that it was an added pressure for her so am deeply grateful for the unique opportunity to achieve this.

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The audience hopefully gains through the documentary a unique insight into what it takes to be a prima ballerina and highly successful soloist in many different mediums of dance. Natalia’s personality and determination to succeed in whatever form of dance she undertakes shines through and in her candour and openness we are afforded a real opportunity to understand how new works are conceived and brought to the stage.

This film is not Black Swan or Dancer. It is rather a feature-length portrait of what it really means to be a contemporary ballet dancer. It is the truth of endless work and rehearsal that characterises the daily life of a superstar dancer. Shot over the course of a whole year, the film gets up close and personal to reveal the blood, sweat and tears of being a ballerina, and the demands of ballet stardom in the 21st Century. I wanted it to be a riveting and beautiful feature film, a rich portrait of a ballerina hard at work, doing what she is best at and has spent her whole life striving for. With Natalia’s incredible input, her accessibility and determination to succeed, I hope we’ve realised it….somewhat, anyway.

Force of Nature Natalia is screening at Curzon Mayfair today (16th July) and on these dates in the future.

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About the author

Gerry Fox is a BAFTA and Grierson Award winning director who has created films on famous figures in the arts, including Marc Quinn, Bill Viola (this documentary to screen on BBC1 in the Autumn following its theatrical release in the spring), Gilbert and George, Robert Frank, Sylvie Guillaume and others. For over 20 years Gerry was lead producer at the South Bank Show alongside Melvyn Bragg. He sits on the board of the British Film Institute.