Behind the scenes with today's hottest ballet star
When Diana Vishneva danced the role of Titania in Ashton’s The Dream, for the first time with American Ballet Theatre last summer, she offered a vision of the Fairy Queen that stopped even die-hard Ashtonites in their tracks. A creature of gossamer and steel, her sinuous, fluttery arms, pliant upper body, and exquisitely articulate footwork made Ashton’s beautiful choreography ring out in such clear tones that it was hard to believe that Vishneva hadn’t been dancing the role for years.
There’s little question in anyone’s mind that Vishneva, a graduate of the Vaganova School in St. Petersburg, Russia, and a principal dancer with the Kirov (Maryinksy) Ballet, is one of the great ballerinas of our time. An impeccable technician, with a gloriously supple body, she also brings a remarkable dramatic intelligence and theatrical savvy to every role, in conjunction with a passionate intensity that can be quite remarkable to witness.
Since joining the Kirov in 1995, Vishneva has won international renown in all the great ballerina roles, but has also performed works by Balanchine, William Forsythe, and Alexei Ratmansky to equal acclaim. With The Dream last season, she continued her characteristic search for artistic growth, showing yet another side of her ever-growing range.
With Manuel LeGris of Paris Opéra Ballet in Roland Petit's Carmen
Vladimir Lupovskoy, Courtesy ABT
But taking on the challenges of existing work (to say nothing of keeping up an international touring schedule and dancing with her home company) doesn’t seem to have been quite enough for the ballerina. This month, at Orange County Performing Arts and New York City Center, she stars in “Beauty in Motion,” a program (co-presented by Ardani Artists) of three new pieces from an unexpected group of choreographers. Only one—Ratmansky, the director of the Bolshoi Ballet—comes from her world of classical dance; the others are MOMIX founder and director Moses Pendleton; and Dwight Rhoden, choreographer and co-director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet.
“As a member of a big company, you never have the chance to feel independent in your creative life,” says Vishneva. “Of course it’s great to do the classical repertoire, but I am always looking for something else too. If you are not growing as an artist, you might as well stop.”
One might say that Vishneva, 31, has been growing as an artist since the age of 9, when she was refused admission to the Vaganova Academy in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Until that point, it had been her mother who had pushed her to take ballet classes. “My mother had dreamed of being a ballerina, but hadn’t had the opportunity,” says Vishneva. But when the school turned the little girl down after an incorrect diagnosis of a malformed spine, she was determined to change their minds.
“I went to a different ballet school, I practiced at home, and did everything I could to get better,” she says. “Until then I had always been first at everything. This made me understand that not everything comes easily.”
At 11, Vishneva was taken into the school and began the rigorous regime that students there had followed for hundreds of years: ballet class, modern, historical or character dance, mime, partnered adagio, and schoolwork. Rising at 6 a.m. to make the 90-minute journey to school, she was usually the first student in the studio, practicing before class began. “I was a workaholic at an early age,” she says.
In 1994, aged 15, she won the rarely awarded gold medal at the Prix de Lausanne, but refused the scholarship that offered her a year at a choice of prestigious ballet schools worldwide. She also turned down an invitation from Oleg Vinogradov, the director of the Kirov, to join the company. “I wanted to finish at my school, with my teachers,” she says simply.
In class (center) at the Vaganova School in 1995.
Photo by Nina Alovert
To onlookers, her extraordinary gifts were immediately apparent and went beyond her obvious technical prowess. “She was so naturally emotional,” says Nina Alovert, the Russian dance photographer and writer. “When I saw her at a Canadian gala in 1995, she did a wonderful Corsaire pas de deux but Vladimir Malakhov was missing his partner for Spectre de la Rose, and he asked her to do it. She sat in the chair, and simply dropped the rose on her lap. It was such a small movement, yet so romantic, so intense, that the whole audience gasped. You immediately felt this is a very unusual girl.”
By 1995, when Vishneva joined the Kirov, Makhar Vasiev had taken over as director. She was given principal roles almost immediately and promoted to that rank a year later. Equally importantly for Vishneva, Vasiev began a program of exchanges with other companies that made it possible for her to dance at La Scala and at the Staatsballett Berlin, which is directed by Malakhov. “I learned what it is to be in another company, to learn new versions of ballets, new approaches to technique,” she says. “I began to feel completely different.”
In 2003 Vishneva came to American Ballet Theatre to dance in MacMillan’s version of Romeo and Juliet, a ballet that she had longed to perform ever since dancing his Manon with the Kirov. Two years later, she joined the roster of ABT’s principal dancers, and for the last three years she has spent much of each spring in New York to perform during the company’s Metropolitan Opera House season.
Her exposure to a broader range of choreographers and ballets while guesting in the U.S. and Europe has been instrumental, she says, in planning “Beauty in Motion.” “At the Maryinsky, having people like Moses or Dwight create something for me wouldn’t happen. To choose them myself gives me a feeling of having no borders, complete freedom. I feel like Isadora Duncan.”
The program has taken two years to put together, she says, and has changed a great deal since its beginnings. One constant has been Ratmansky, whose version of Cinderella is in the Kirov repertoire, and who has created a quartet, Pierrot Lunaire for Vishneva and three male dancers from the Kirov. “He has such a great musicality,” says Vishneva. “Dancing in Cinderella made me hear the Prokofiev music differently. I was a little scared when he told me he wanted to use Schoenberg for this program, but I really like the way he has made it work with the dance.”
Asking Moses Pendleton for a piece was an idea that came later, after Vishneva had met the choreographer in Berlin, where his daughter, Quinn Elizabeth, dances with Malakhov’s Staatsballett. She subsequently saw a MOMIX program in New York and was enthralled. “It reminded me of my childhood,” she says. “I could hardly believe that what I was seeing was possible. It’s a different world, a completely different approach to anything we have in Russia.”
Pendleton has created a solo, Flow, for Vishneva, offering her a chance to explore the blend of dance; athletics; and extravagant, prop-driven visual imagery that has been a hallmark of his work since his days as a founder of Pilobolus. Last August she spent two weeks in Connecticut, where Pendleton lives, working in the studio as well as talking and listening to music together.
“I work through improvisation and Diana is not used to that,” says Pendleton. “But she is very creative and inventive, so it was just a matter of freeing her mind a bit. Ballet dancers often want to be told what to do—but if you can release them and let them have fun, they will surprise themselves. We experimented with props—a beaded skirt, mirrors—and towards the end of that period I think she was beginning to understand that this piece is maybe something where you don’t see a ballerina.”
Photo by Matthew Karas for DM.
In Rhoden’s piece, Three Point Turn, Vishneva is likely to look just like a ballerina—albeit a very contemporary one. “I had seen some videos of his work,” she says, explaining why she asked him to create a piece for her. “I liked the plastique, the style, and there is an African-American use of the body that is very inspiring.” The work, a sextet with Vishneva and Desmond Richardson leading two pairs of Kirov dancers, is set to a commissioned score by David Rozenblatt that will be performed live. It also offers Vishneva the opportunity of working with Richardson, Rhoden’s co-director at Complexions, whom she had met previously on the gala circuit. “He is a gorgeous dancer; we have a real connection dancing together,” she says. “In rehearsals we often don’t have to speak; we just understand one another physically.”
While putting the program together and finding time to rehearse with the three choreographers, Vishneva has also been performing with the Kirov, and keeping up a packed schedule of guest performances with companies abroad. She nonetheless finds time for regular swims, massages, and the occasional visits to the sea to connect with nature.
“You need a lot of willpower and discipline to be a dancer,” she says. “But when people tell you that they feel something in their soul when they see you dance, it’s worth all the work.”
“Beauty in Motion” is undoubtedly an artistic risk for Vishneva. But it’s a risk that she feels is worth taking. “Of course it would have been easier to put together a program where a little new work is mixed with older pieces. But all my life I like to make things more difficult,” she says jokingly. “It’s like life; you don’t know how it will turn out.”
Roslyn Sulcas writes about dance for The New York Times and other publications.
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.