Dancers & Companies

Diana Vishneva on Why Americans Are Wrong About Russia & Contemporary Dance

Part of the reason we chose international ballet star Diana Vishneva as one of our Dance Magazine Awardees this year is because she's always been an innovator. Before it was normal for ballet dancers to travel the world guesting for numerous companies, Vishneva, who began at the Mariinsky Ballet and later became a principal at American Ballet Theatre, was doing it. Today, she's opened a new chapter of her career by departing ABT and devoting more time to her CONTEXT Festival in Russia. But she's still innovating, commissioning her first original work for the festival this year and creating programming aimed at developing contemporary choreographers in Russia. We caught up with her to hear how the 2017 festival is shaping up:


Why did you choose Goyo Montero to create CONTEXT's first original commission?

I was always impressed by his choreographic style—a synthesis of classical and contemporary dance. It is so interesting to see him taking the classic plot of Cinderella or Romeo and Juliet and transforming it to fit the modern paradigm, discovering other meanings and telling these iconic stories in a completely new way. I think his style perfectly fits the artists of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theater who are going to perform his Asunder at the festival.

Is anything else new with the festival this year?

For its fifth year, we created a new logo and a filmed mini-performance already available on our website:

This year we also celebrate the 85th anniversary of the renowned Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen. We will treat the audience to one of his iconic works, Sarcasm, performed by the Dutch National Ballet. The international program features the Russian premiere of Nijinsky by Marco Goecke performed by Gauthier Dance Company, one of the favorites of the festival audience. Nijinsky's name is very meaningful to Russia, so it's interesting how this work will be perceived here.

The educational program has also evolved. Together with the British Council and Studio Wayne McGregor we've prepared a two-day workshop in Moscow for choreographers from all over Russia. They will get a chance to win a grant to develop and stage their own production in their hometown and an opportunity to complete an internship at Studio Wayne McGregor in London. As always, we will run a competition for young choreographers, which will be showcased for the first time in St. Petersburg. If in the first years of the festival we received 20-30 applications, mostly from Moscow and St. Petersburg, this year more than 100 of them came from all over the world. We are planning to bring the competition to America and other countries in the future. The competition is our pride, the unique educational and creative product of the festival.

What's your vision for the festival for the next few years?

We are going to show The Room by Olga Vasilieva, the winner of the 2016 choreography competition, as well as Asunder by Goyo Montero at the Holland Dance Festival in January 2018. We are planning to expand our educational program. Currently the festival has two directions, one includes workshops for dancers and choreographers, and the second focuses on future dance critics and ballet photographers. Next year, we'll launch a series of lectures for stage designers and a special workshop for dancers about injury prevention and how to quickly get in shape after recovery. I am pleased to see that our young critics and photographers that went through our workshops are already published not only in blogs and social networks, but they take pictures and write for leading theaters, newspapers and magazines.

How are you liking being in the director position?

I don't think that I can like or not like the position. I mostly feel huge responsibility for everything that happens in the life of the festival. When I dance, I'm in charge only of myself, and being a festival's director is a completely different story. I take part in every aspect of its organization: I participate in the selection of participants of our international program, in the finalists of the competition of young choreographers and in the development of the film program.

How has your experience as a dancer informed your role as a director?

The fact that I'm often on tour allows me to see many premieres and get acquainted with new names. In the west, there is an opinion that in Russia we are far behind in the sphere of awareness of contemporary dance. Believe me, this is far from the truth. In recent years, also thanks to our CONTEXT Festival, almost all leading companies of modern dance have visited Russia.

How do you balance your role as director with performing?

The CONTEXT Festival came to me very gradually. It's impossible to wake up one morning and suddenly decide to run your own festival. For example, the first 10 years of my life at the Mariinsky Theater were devoted to mastering the classical repertoire. But I always knew that I wanted to explore more. And when I reached a certain level, I went further. That is how I started my solo modern dance projects. These gave me a completely different understanding of dance. I remember when I once was at the festival of Pina Bausch in Wuppertal and I thought that such a festival, where both professionals and amateurs create together, would be so wanted in Russia! And a few years later I managed to transform that idea into reality. I have done a lot in my artistic life and I am now ready to share my experience. Together with my colleagues we create the history of contemporary dance in Russia.

What advice would you give to dancers interested in moving into a leadership role?

Set a clear goal and understand what do you need to develop in yourself to achieve it. Starting any business is only possible with a loyal team and self-confidence. Don't be afraid of difficulties or uncertainty whether you will succeed or not, or whether your initiative finds support or not. In our profession, we are accustomed to difficulties and by overcoming them you understand that you have no boundaries, and you are truly free in what you do.

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

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.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

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.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

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."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Dancers & Companies
Never let it be said that The Cindies lack studio swag. Via Instagram @jamesbwhiteside

It is a great tragedy for dance history that iconic ballet partnerships like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev or Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov weren't able to document their backstage shenanigans on social media. (Okay, maybe not a great tragedy, but you have to admit that you're curious.)

Lucky for us, that isn't the case with today's star dancers—like American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, aka The Cindies. These two aren't just onstage partners. They're serious #BestieGoals. Our evidence, as documented on Instagram, is as follows:

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Dancers & Companies
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

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.

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News
Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

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.


Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

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."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

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.

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Training
Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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