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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.

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