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By Roslyn Sulcas
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.
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.
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.”
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.