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From Diva to Woman

Posted on September 7, 2017

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As Diana Vishneva brings her show On the Edge to London,
she talks to Zoë Anderson about finding fresh challenges
All photographs: Danil Golovkin.

“It’s important to have a diverse career,” explains ballerina Diana Vishneva. “Not only as an actor, a performer, but also as a dancer – to teach your body all the varieties of movement it can do. Not to limit yourself with just a certain range of possibilities, but to open it up.”

On her last visit to the UK last summer, Vishneva came as a star of the Maryinsky Ballet, dancing roles such as Leonid Lavrovsky’s Juliet and Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite. This time, she’s here with On the Edge, a double bill of works she’s commissioned from choreographers Jean-Christophe Maillot and Carolyn Carlson.

In English, the title On the Edge suggests risk, or an extreme situation. In Russian, Vishneva exaplains in a telephone call from New York, it refers to the different aspects of creation. “It’s about the different phases of the performer’s personality,” she says. “When you start to collaborate with a choreographer on a new project, you never know what the experience is going to bring you.”

So how does she choose her collaborators? “Jean-Christophe Maillot holds a special position for me, for my creative path. When I was a teenager, I danced in the Prix de Lausanne competition for young ballet dancers. He was the head of the jury! He was someone who discovered my talent, who understood my potential. He opened the doors to the international stage for me.” She won the top prize at the 1994 contest, and puts this down to Maillot: “There were differences of opinion on that jury, but he was adamant about giving me the grand prix. I decided – maybe even at that point! – that once I’ve grown into a real, big ballerina, I will do something with Jean-Christophe Maillot.”

He was the first person Vishneva contacted when she started commissioning works, but it’s taken until On the Edge, her third project, for their schedules to match. Switch, the piece he created for her, is a pas de trois featuring two dancers from his own company, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. “Two big personalities, Gaetan Morlotti and Bernice Coppetiers. And I am, in a way, his baby – I’m someone he watched grow up from that competition. A baby who has grown into a diva. He looks at his relations with each of these three personalities, and builds interrelations between them. It’s a very personal story.

“Before starting to rehearse, we discussed what’s going to happen – the story, the music, the protagonist,” Vishneva remembers. “So there was an idea of what it was going to be, but then he told me that it would transform once we started rehearsing! That’s exactly what happened. Sometimes it changes from performance to performance, according to the mood. You can get a slightly different story, depending on what’s happening inside the dancer.”

She’s also excited by the music, by film composer Danny Elfman, known for his swirling, quirky movie scores. “It gives a specific mood to the whole performance. It’s related  to cinema, so [the show] has to be cinematic – even on the verge of being a trailer! Jean-Christophe Maillot really explores everything he works with. With music, he knows it by heart – to the last note, the last accent.”

If Maillot was an old ally, Vishneva describes Carolyn Carlson, an American choreographer based in France, in terms of discovery. “Meeting her was something unpredicted – like a gift from heaven. I would put it in the same rank as the chance I had to meet Pina Bausch,” the great German dance theatre choreographer. (Vishneva had hoped to work with Bausch, who died not long after they met.)

“It was an extraordinary experience to work with a woman choreographer, who understands the female soul, the many layers of it, much more deeply than a male choreographer. I was thrilled that Carolyn and I found common ground to create something together.

“In our case, it was the films of Andrei Tarkovsky.” Tarkovsky (1932– 1986) was a Soviet director, known for his long takes, unconventional storytelling and spiritual themes. Besides a shared interest in his films, Vishneva also discovered the poetry of his father, Arseny Tarkovsky.

“It was a very important experience rehearsing with Carolyn, in her atelier, which is just outside Paris, with uninterrupted work. Woman in a Room is 40 minutes of dancing, all alone on stage. It was my first experience of dancing totally solo – before, I’ve always done something with a partner. This was new, a new facet uncovered in me.

“Carolyn is both American and European at the same time. At the beginning, you watch this very sophisticated, very in-depth story of a woman – and then, at a certain point, she breaks this distance, this veil. It’s this American quality of open approaches.

“I had to do a lot of things for the first time in this performance. I change my clothes on stage, I put on high heels, I use props – and remember, I’m a classical ballerina! So it was a fullscale art project for me. We couldn’t stop working on it, we couldn’t stop ourselves. To Carolyn, 40 minutes was nothing. I was afraid, but she was thinking of making a piece an hour and a half long! Or a second piece, a continuation of the first. It was a total creative understanding between us, leading to a very fruitful cooperation.

“There’s an interesting contrast between the two works. Jean- Christophe Maillot presents me as a diva, as a star, and Carolyn – who didn’t know me as a person – uncovered things which were hidden inside me. She uncovered my soul. I became totally diff erent on stage. She discovered new – not even potential, new personal sides of me, and made me perform them on stage. It was a total discovery: a totally diff erent way of acting, of dancing, of being on stage.

“Carolyn taught me to trust my inner, organic self. When you perform, you are protected by a shell – the style, the choreography, what you have learned. Here, Carolyn said, ‘Just trust yourself, and I will help you to do this.’ Of course, in every performance, every role, I try to be very natural and very sincere. But in this performance with Carolyn, even though every gesture was measured, was very thoughtful, the discovery of it was that I was being myself. I was being myself, as a woman. Every movement was natural to me. I’m living through it. It gets right to the heart – it’s a totally different experience.”

Vishneva has also been outspoken about recent developments in the Russian ballet world. In 2013, former Bolshoi star Nikolai Tsiskaridze was abruptly appointed rector of the Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg, where Vishneva herself trained. “There were neither compelling reasons for the change in the school’s leadership nor was there a dialogue with the ballet professionals of St Petersburg,” she stated at the time. “Above all, leading the school involves dealing with the fragility of children and its leader has to be morally irreproachable.” She says now that this response was unusual for her: “My nature is not normally that of an activist. It was my powerful reaction to the situation. I belonged to the Vaganova Academy, it is close to my heart – I could not keep silent, because the situation seemed terribly wrong.”

Vishneva’s other activism is through her own foundation, a cultural and charitable organisation that tries to increase access to ballet for all social classes, assisting young and retired performers. She’s planning to hold fundraising events while in London. As a Russian artist, she says, “In this moment that is not simple for our country, it’s important to show that we have something to be proud of, something to share with people of great culture.”

When we spoke, Vishneva was in rehearsals for Alexei Ratmansky’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty with American Ballet Theatre (see Dancing Times, February 2015). So how does she switch from classical steps to more contemporary work? “It’s not easy. You have to learn things from the start. Especially at the beginning, when you’re learning a new style. Contemporary choreography with the body of a classical ballerina, which is adjusted to certain movements, certain postures – of course you need to reprogramme yourself, to train a lot. With experience, it’s just a question of readjusting.”

So does she have a wishlist, a sense of roles to be danced or choreographers she wants to work with? “I’ve done lots of collaborations, performances that I didn’t even dream of dancing. I’ve loved every second of my career. By now, all the performances I looked forward to dancing, I’ve done it already! That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped looking, but now, when I meet choreographers, the proposals come from their side – to do something together. This is a shift towards specially-created projects.”

“When I was a young ballerina,” she concludes, “I started to extend my experience in terms of classical dancing. I went to other companies, I explored other interpretations. Then I understood I wanted to work with other choreographers. For me, it was a question of personal evolution. I was looking for new repertoire, then for new choreographers. It was important to be able to choose for myself. It’s not the director of a company who chooses what I’m going to dance. I have the choice.”

This interview was first published in the April 2015 issue of Dancing Times.

Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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