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In a black-box rehearsal studio in Costa Mesa, Calif., two of the world’s most acclaimed and sought-after ballet stars, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, are sweating it out to learn new steps to “Mercy,” a modern ballet they will perform for the first time on July 25 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
As she bends her body into an angular position unfamiliar for a classically trained Russian dancer, Osipova exudes a controlled grace, even when asked to do it four more times by Gioia Masala, an assistant to choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Vasiliev, laying on his stomach on the floor beneath her, reaches out to grab Osipova’s ankle as she turns, a feat he manages without looking up.
They mutter directions to each other in Russian while Masala and another assistant demonstrate the proper steps, then record the dancers with an iPad. Their communication shorthand comes from years of dancing together. Osipova, 28, and Vasiliev, 25, came up in the ranks of the Bolshoi Ballet as teens and were even once engaged. She is now a principal with The Royal Ballet in London while he is with American Ballet Theater in New York. During the off-season, they are still partners, performing tailor-made programs together across the globe.
“Mercy,” an extract from the full-length ballet “Mea Culpa” by Cherkaoui, the Belgian founder of the Eastman dance company, is one dance of a three-part program called “Solo for Two,” which will debut with four performances at the Segerstrom before moving on to Moscow and London.
In the rehearsal studio, Osipova and Vasiliev are dancing without musical accompaniment so they can concentrate on learning the new steps, though the music in the program will range from British electronic to live chamber ensemble and Portuguese fado. They have been rehearsing for seven hours a day for the better part of a week.
“Today was easy, only four hours practice,” Osipova says.
Her English is nearly flawless, but she insists on using a translator to express herself more precisely.
“The most difficult part is to learn something new,” she says. “As classical dancers, for us it’s a new language and very unusual movements. Some days go better than others, but day by day, it’s getting there. This week we’ll have learned it and next week we have to polish and rehearse.”
Vasiliev, meanwhile, speaks English easily if not perfectly. He has changed out of a T-shirt, back-support brace and foot-warming gold moon boots (donned between takes), into light gray skinny jeans, a vintage rock T-shirt and leather sandals.
“You use more energy for learning new ballets, but afterward, it’s nice. You feel good,” he says. “We know each other, how we move, what we can do and what we can’t.”
While the two of them perform separately most of the year, they have performed together three times at Segerstrom Hall. “This place we know,” says Vasiliev of Orange County. “It’s a special place because everyone is so nice and the weather is good.” For Osipova, who is based out of London, California is heaven. “It’s such a quiet and relaxing atmosphere here,” she says. “It’s probably the best place to be to focus because nothing bothers you. You belong to yourself.”
Osipova spends hours after rehearsal analyzing her movements on the iPad, like an athlete reviewing game film, but she says that when she’s done, she likes to relax with movies and novels. Yet, she is a bit of workaholic. Lately, she’s expressed interest in choreography with some of her colleagues at The Royal Ballet.
“The ideas we had in studio were really good and probably will continue, but right now there’s not enough time to focus,” Osipova says. “But the experience I’ve had with choreographers helps me to find my own language.”
Vasiliev, who has started to choreograph a solo work for himself, has a similarly devoted work ethic.
“I hope to finish dancing when I’m 40; it’s enough,” he laughs.