Stretching the limits

Special to The Times

DIANA VISHNEVA would seem to have it all. A principal with the venerable Kirov Ballet since 1996, the Russian dancer blessed with an uncommonly supple body, superb technique and a vivid dramatic presence appears routinely on the world's prestige stages. She's won praise not only in such classics as "Giselle" and "Swan Lake" but also in George Balanchine's neoclassical masterpiece "Jewels."

But at the relatively young age of 31, this St. Petersburg-born ballerina wants more. Now she is venturing into the uncharted waters of choreography custom-made for her.

Vishneva -- dubbed "Beauty in Motion" by Vogue -- will return to the Orange County Performing Artscenter from Wednesday through Sunday in a program with that same label featuring new works by three choreographers she cherry-picked. The engagement, to be followed by others in New York and Moscow, is being co-produced by OCPAC and impresario Sergei Danilian, whose "Kings of the Dance," a show built around four top-flight male ballet stars, originated at OCPAC two years ago.

Vishneva's choreographers, an exciting mix, are tops in their field as well. Alexei Ratmansky, who announced only last week that he was retiring as artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, created a Kirov "Cinderella" for her in 2002. But the other two -- Moses Pendleton, founder of the quirky modern dance troupe Momix, and Dwight Rhoden, co-director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet -- were virtual strangers to her, which is precisely what Vishneva relishes.

"Of course, it's a challenge," she said through an interpreter during a recent rehearsal break in Manhattan, where along with guest artist Desmond Richardson she was learning the intricate footwork of Rhoden's "Three Point Turn."

Biting delicately into a chocolate bar, she said, "Dance is always a challenge, but I never think about it that way. Naturally, I love the classical repertory, but I am always looking for something else too. I have a gift with these choreographers, and once we know where we're going, we do what we do and hopefully the audience will come to it and enjoy."

That straightforwardness has long characterized Vishneva. After being refused admission at age 9 to the renowned Vaganova Academy in her hometown, she doggedly studied elsewhere before winning a place there two years later. Then, at 15, she snagged the gold medal at the Prix de Lausanne, the international ballet competition held in Switzerland, and her career has been in orbit since.

In "Beauty in Motion," though, she won't always be wearing pointe shoes, and she'll be cavorting on and with such whimsical accessories as a 16-by-14-foot raked mirror and a heavily beaded skirt and Vegas-worthy headdress, the latter in Pendleton's three-part "F.L.O.W."

The work, says the choreographer, was created only after Vishneva had spent two weeks at his Connecticut studio. Plunging into the gymnastic Momix vocabulary, she took classes with the company and allowed herself to try on different personas.

"The main thing is Diana doesn't really need to do this," says Pendleton. "But she is a different breed that sees challenges and will move in other directions just to experiment. What I love about Diana is she understands the metamorphic mind -- the transformation and connection -- the fantasy that her body is a bridge to."

As it turned out, building that bridge took a bit of doing. "Moses' world is something completely different than what we have in Russia, it's not the same as the classical dance," Vishneva said. "For me, he is not making a ballet but a fantasy -- a dream -- something that was like childhood. There is even a section with black light."

Although her collaboration with Ratmansky includes neither props nor special effects, in his case it was the choice of music, Arnold Schoenberg's atonal "Pierrot Lunaire," that at first proved alien to her.

Indeed, she confessed to being initially afraid of the score, which felt so different from the Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev she was used to dancing to. "As a choreographer, Alexei's mentality is more Western than Russian," she said. "But he has such a good musicality, it was inspiring."

Ratmansky, for his part, says he always envisioned Vishneva as Schoenberg's "moonstruck" Pierrot, who in his choreography appears with three male dancers from the Kirov.

"It's a nice change for her, rhythmically and in the sense of mood," says Ratmansky, who first saw Vishneva perform when she was a teenager. "It's complicated, but because she's a fantastic dancer, she is capable of getting many different styles right."

He also believes she has matured as an actress. "Diana's not only Pierrot," says the choreographer. "She's also Columbine. It's a bit more abstract, and she gets to show a range of moods and nuances."

As for "Three Point Turn," set to a newly commissioned score by David Rozenblatt, it features a sextet in which two pairs of Kirov dancers are led by Vishneva and Richardson.

Although the two had crossed paths on the gala circuit, they had never danced together, and theirs is easily the most striking partnership in "Beauty in Motion." (Former Alvin Ailey star Richardson is also co-founder with Rhoden of Complexions, which will come to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in April.)

'Something that stretches'

AT the rehearsal, his and Vishneva's unmistakable chemistry belied the fact this was their first joint outing. Under Rhoden's meticulous direction, she fell backward repeatedly into Richardson's arms, until the move looked almost Chaplinesque. Then, after falling forward, she slid down his leg before the two unwound like corkscrews, until at last her head rested in the palm of his hand.

"You have to explode apart," Rhoden asserted. "Let your bodies squirm -- just feel each other."

And so it went, with sensual entanglements suggesting the interaction of longtime lovers. Although this pas de deux is the centerpiece of "Three Point Turn," the percussive score helps propel what Rhoden calls "a dialogue between man and woman."

"I wanted to create something to honor their gifts," he explained, "and at the same time deliver something that stretches them. As for Diana, she's bringing something from 'Giselle' to me."

Richardson, who will be familiar to some local dance-goers from his 2006 turn as a non-singing Beowulf in Los Angeles Opera's "Grendel," said he and Vishneva were having a ball.

"Diana fits right in," he said. "We don't have to say many words -- there's a commonality and a kinship."

That feeling, said Vishneva, was mutual: "Dancing with Desmond is like a partner for life. He's a gorgeous dancer."

Vishneva hasn't forsaken tutus and tiaras. Her packed schedule includes upcoming engagements with the Kirov, American Ballet Theatre and La Scala Ballet. But it's apparent that she's on another kind of journey as well, something Ratmansky understands. "As a performer, Diana is constantly changing, she's moving forward," he says. "She's searching for perfection. And she's honest as an artist, because life is changing every day."

Given how little time she has to herself, it should be no surprise that Vishneva said she currently has no significant other and instead chooses to swim and enjoy the outdoors whenever possible. This, though, is clearly her moment, one she is eager to seize.

"When you work with living choreographers, it's difficult," she repeated after the rehearsal, having changed into boots, a flared wool skirt and a pearl-buttoned cardigan. "But I'm always bringing something from myself, whatever I dance. Without the risk, there can be no rewards."

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'Diana Vishneva -- Beauty in Motion'

Where: Orange County Performing Artscenter, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

Price: $20 to $92

Contact: (714) 556-2787 or www.ocpac.org

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