ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — One might think that performing as a member of the Mariinsky Ballet and American Ballet Theatre and making regular guest appearances at the Bolshoi would keep Diana Vishneva sufficiently busy.
But this leading international ballerina, known for combining dazzling classical technique ("Swan Lake" and Balanchine's "Rubies" to name just two) with dramatic intensity, has a restless hunger for the new.
Vishneva, 37, consistently seeks out and creates opportunities to work with contemporary choreographers who work far outside her comfort zone. Last year she took on the challenges of a 1947 work by Martha Graham; this year, she danced a Mats Ek duet on a Bolshoi program.
Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center for the Arts, which introduced Vishneva's adventurous "Beauty in Motion" program in 2008, will once again be the setting as she unveils her latest project, "On the Edge," with four performances starting Wednesday. Further extending her artistic explorations, she has sought out two of Europe's leading choreographers, Carolyn Carlson and Jean-Christophe Maillot.
Vishneva's curiosity and unwillingness to rest on her laurels were evident during an interview in her native Russian at a Mediterranean café across the square from the Mariinsky Theater.
The previous evening she had danced the classic "Giselle" on that venerable stage, but her conversation this day focused on the choreographic possibilities of the here and now.
When considering her new project, she said "Beauty in Motion" already seems to belong in a distant past. That program and "On the Edge" have nothing in common in design or implementation.
"I am always aiming at a discovery in terms of my personal history, my personal career," she said. "For me, the process of my development is very important — what I experience, what I feel, what I achieve with each new endeavor, especially when I undertake something completely or especially new."
Vishneva had never worked with either of the choreographers commissioned for "On the Edge." But she has a longstanding connection with Maillot, the veteran choreographer and artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. He chaired the jury of a ballet competition she participated in when she was 17.
"Since then he has been looking at me as his child — to the extent that when I first came to him with another project, he declined it partly because he doesn't work on the side and partly because, as he said, I was so precious to him that he was just afraid to take it," she said.
"But with time, a desire to work together prevailed on his part, and he agreed. I came to Monte Carlo to see him, and it took one rehearsal for him to say we would start working on it the next day."
Their collaboration resulted in "Switch," set to a Danny Elfman score and making up half the "On the Edge" program, for Vishneva and two leading members of his company. The choreography presented something different for her.
"Jean-Christophe created his own technique of pointe work that is quite different from what I do in classical ballet. For him, it is not just a technique as it is the continuation of a woman's foot. It is like dancing in soft shoes but standing on pointe at the same time."
Carlson, a California native who began her career as a dancer with Alwin Nikolais' company, has been based in Europe for the past four decades, becoming a singular and venerable figure in its contemporary dance scene. She holds two positions in France, as artistic director of the Atelier de Paris and National Choreographic Centre of Roubaix Nord-Pas de Calais.
In addition to having a notoriously busy schedule, "Carolyn Carlson doesn't work with classical dancers in principle," Vishneva noted. "I came to see her personally as I do with all my choreographers because it is very important for me to explain my desires and vision in person to contemporary choreographers."
Vishneva clearly won her over, and they found time last year to work on "Woman in a Room," the other part of "On the Edge."
"When I came to her rehearsal room, I saw that on the huge table, which became my partner in this piece, she spread pages with poetry by Arseny Tarkovsky [a popular Russian poet and father of the late Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky].
"We spoke about poetry, we spoke about movies by Andrei Tarkovsky. We read his father's poems in Russian and in English. And I ended up reciting poetry [in a voice-over in Russian with English translation supplied in a brochure] in my show — which is totally incredible for me."
Vishneva spoke of tantalizing contrasts between the halves of her program." Carolyn pays a huge attention to my performance as an actress in terms of what we want to express and convey. If Carolyn wants me to be absolutely organic on stage, Jean-Christophe reaches out for a tougher execution, passionate, erotic in some moments, which is his signature approach, I think.
"Being a woman, Carolyn looks at a female dancer in a totally different way than Jean-Christophe — who is madly in love with female dancers but in his own way. And this contrast promises to be extremely interesting for audiences and for myself. Jean-Christophe sees in me some kind of internal vulnerability and at the same time the incredible star status, but Carolyn sees in me some internal poetry, some internal depth."
In addition to performing with both leading Russian troupes, Vishneva is planning a festival of contemporary dance for Moscow in December and will mark her 10th season with ABT next spring. She said she hopes the festival will help rectify what she sees as "a gap in the understanding of contemporary dance in Russia. This project contains a very serious educational element in addition to its artistic and creative value. I feel that many young choreographers have a serious potential, but they don't know where and how to begin."
For all her focus on the contemporary, Vishneva remains committed to her classical repertory.
"Given my new experiences, I can now come back to breathe some new life into [classical] productions. But I will never allow myself some free interpretation of a classical role. I should be very cautious not to retreat from 'Giselle's' romantic style, its beauty and aesthetics. It is a challenge for me to preserve my old school and at the same time to enrich it with something new."
Loiko reported from St. Petersburg. Reiter reported from New York.
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