The formidable and internationally acclaimed Royal Ballet principal Natalia Osipova and award-winning dancer, choreographer and movement director Jonathan Goddard are set to perform the renowned choreographer Arthur Pita’s The Mother, a raw and emotional portrayal of Hans Christian Andersen’s dark tale of a loss and death.
We sat down with Jonathan Goddard to talk about this intense piece that sees Natalia Osipova as a grieving mother, who is visited by Goddard’s character Death. Goddard’s role sees him playing many versions of Death, some male, some female and others are mystical creatures.
The Mother is premiering in London at Southbank on 20 June.
How did you, Natalia Osipova and Arthur Pita become together to create The Mother?
I’ve worked with Arthur before when we created the Stepmother/Stepfather together. And I’ve also worked with Natalia before – we did a duet for her Sadler’s Wells show, Pure Dance.
Originally, Natalia approached me and Arthur, but it was with a slightly different concept and we did a couple of days workshop exploring that. And then on the second day Arthur brought in a different idea – something that he’d been thinking about for a long time, which was this Hans Christian Andersen story of The Mother. And it just really worked for the three of us, I think because it’s a different, it’s like a dance play that really focuses on just the feelings and the emotions of a mother.
I think that it’s a really interesting role for Natalia and it’s a really interesting role for me, because it’s not a romantic, lead hero. It’s like an anti-hero. But it is definitely a duet of an hour and 20 minutes, just the two of us. But it’s nice, because I’m not (in a realistic sense) really there. I enjoy that ambiguity of being able to disappear, reappear as someone else and I don’t have to play a straight Romeo type hero.
For Natalia, who’s often in the central role, I think it’s different and challenging because in those classical ballets she’s the heroine who’s often going to get married, but there’s none of that. There’s no husband and there’s no redemption by getting married. It’s just a woman. And we’ve left it quite ambiguous: whether she’s suffering from postnatal depression or whether she has lost her baby or whether she really does have the baby.
But I enjoy that we’re tackling a subject which I think doesn’t get talked about very much, and doing it in a sensitive way or this kind of magical way, which I think is really nice.
How as a dancer does it feel moving between the different types of Death in this intimate duet?
Well it’s a big challenge. I love having a character, but in this I’m being presented with six or seven characters, so in rehearsals I really had to work on each one – just working out what are the characteristics that differentiate from one to another so it feels different every time I come on stage.
But there’s two challenges. There’s the practical challenge of getting changed that quickly every time you go off stage – I literally go off stage, put something else on and get back on stage! Just in terms of logistics, it’s a huge show for Natalia, but it’s a huge show for me as well. Every time I leave stage, I’m manically getting into something else and running back on stage. Which is good because it makes you go fast.
But the other thing is that the genders flip, that really helps. So I feel like, “Oh! Right now I’m a female character…” or “Now I’m a male character…” they tend to flip like that, so that helps the physicality. You’ve got to have something to hold onto with each one. But they’re very, very strong ideas or looks in each scenario. So that also really helps.
How did you change for the different roles of Death, was it more physical or emotional?
I’d say more of an emotional change. Every character has a very strong desire or want that I play and you can build everything out of that. And then there are physical restrictions – sometimes I’ve got shoes on, sometimes it’s hats, wigs – all these sort of things lead you to the physicality. But I think the emotional want of each character can drive the whole thing.
They all need something from The Mother and then they give something in exchange. Then as they’re all Death, they share a core, which I like. I like to find that sort of complexity – the core that goes all the way through.
Tell us about working with Arthur Pita in the studio?
I like working with Arthur because I think he’s got a really strong vision. I try and work with people that I trust and also that I trust the vision that they have and their stylistic taste. And I think he’s a really good director as well as choreographer. I really enjoy working with people that have a very strong directorial vision.
I do a lot of movement direction with The National Theatre and I’ve worked a lot with directors (rather than being a performer) working with actors and movement directing and choreography. I feel like movement direction and choreography are two different headspaces. Arthur does both of all these, because he works as a movement director too. So for me, it’s lovely to work with somebody like that.
I feel like he can watch a scene and understand what it needs and where it needs to go. And then because of the work that I’ve been doing and the fact that I can create as well, then I can go away and devise something and then bring it back. It’s a genuine collaboration, but it’s his vision. And so I never feel like, ‘Oh! I’m making it.’ It’s absolutely his vision.
You spent four weeks in the studio with Natalia and Arthur, was the creative process collaborative or did he come with set choreography?
It was very collaborative, very creative. It’s nice to work with Natalia in that way. We really made it together. We devised everything in the space. Arthur has very set ideas about what the space might be or about what the drivers or the characters might be in that scenario, but then the actual events that happen, they come through devising.
Can you share any special moments from the studio sessions?
We had the rehearsal set for the whole time, which was brilliant because the other collaborators – Yann Seabra who designed the set and Frank Moon and Dave Price who wrote the music – were also in the studio most days, because they devise at the same time.
So in terms of being with that collaborative team, I felt like every day was pretty crazy because everybody’s working: Yann is making stuff all the time, so there’s lots of props and costumes.
I love having those things in the space, so the more costume I could have, the more I really wanted all that and was saying, ‘If we’re going to do it, I want it. If I’m going to wear it with high heels, I need to wear them.’ I don’t want to do things at the last minute, so if I’ve got to do all these crazy things, then I want to practice.
You get amazing stuff, but you have to practice it. So it was wigs everywhere! Arthur’s so practical, so he’ll be making stuff, he’ll be wearing a wig and trying it out. So the whole thing was just a big, creative workshop-y space, really lovely.
You and Natalia have worked and danced together before, how would you describe your dynamic and chemistry.
I find Natalia such an interesting performer. I remember seeing her for the first time – I can’t remember how many years ago – but when the Bolshoi came and they did In The Upper Room, I just remember thinking, ‘Who is that?’
She did these leaps – there were loads of people on stage and you could only watch this one person just doing this amazing thing. I think that year she won the The Critic’s Circle Best Female, and then I won Best Male. So we actually met then, which is really nice. She didn’t speak any English, but I said, ‘I thought you were brilliant!’
She’s like a dance force, which I think is amazing, and she’s super serious about it. It’s lovely to be with someone on stage like that. She’s very genuine as well. I find it quite inspiring that she’s all about the art form. It’s the same for me – I’d rather be respected than famous. In today’s age it makes it hard because you want work.
But I’m lucky though, I’ve managed to keep working and I keep working with people I want to work with and built a career that way, but through really believing in what I do and believing in the people and by really trusting the people I work with.
I trust Natalia. I trust her on the stage and I enjoy her power. And also, that she’s interested in contemporary dance. I get asked a lot about how on earth we work together as she’s a classical dancer, but she’s a good contemporary dancer as well. I would never say I was a good ballet dancer. You just meet in the middle, you’re just dancing. It’s just what you have to try and achieve and that can be anything.
What does it feel like dancing with Natalia’s intensity?
I enjoy it. I find it quite inspiring. I think definitely something like The Mother where it’s very dramatic, where you’re meeting in a dramatic space and actually you can just match that power easily.
I love meeting people in their dance selves because they’re often so different from how they are as people. She’s quite a soft person. But on stage she’s like hundred percent. I really enjoy finding what that’s going to be or how we’re going to make it work. But you got to rise to it as well. That’s what I enjoy. Otherwise you get run over!
The Mother is premiering in London at Southbank on 20 June.