From Russia with love — of dancing

The first time Jean-Christophe Maillot laid eyes on Diana Vishneva, he was gripped by the feeling that she was weird — not in a way that made him cringe or avert his sight.

Quite the opposite. He was spellbound.

"She was not what we were used to seeing, not placed [on her feet] like everybody, and she was extremely skinny," said Maillot, holding up his pinky to drive his point home. "She was very atypical for a classical dancer."

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Vishneva trained at the Vaganova Ballet Academy and won a gold medal at the Prix de Lausanne, an international young dancers' competition, in 1994.

"Nobody really understood Diana, but I got very excited," recounted Maillot, who at the time presided over the jury. "I fought a lot during the deliberations to give her a gold medal. It was very special. Right away, I knew she was pure talent."

Starting Wednesday, the ballerina will perform "On the Edge" at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. The show comprises world premieres of "Switch" and "Woman in a Room" and is co-presented by Ardani Artists. Vishneva, a principal dancer at the Mariinsky Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, who began working on individual projects in 2007, is poised to exhibit original choreography by Maillot and Carolyn Carlson.

The venue, which launched its dance series in 1986 with the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, has since showcased projects of a more experimental nature. Judging by the overwhelming response by local audiences, Executive Vice President Judy Morr believes that there's plenty of love to go around for the classics and the eclectic.

Who packs the seats? Everyone, she said, from "little girls dressed in tutus" to college-going youths and adult patrons.

"'On the Edge,' and before it, 'Beauty in Motion,' allow us to watch Diana express her passion and individual style that starts in her soul — not just recreating roles that have been part of the repertory and danced by many artists through the years," Morr said.

"We are watching the creative process, not just the re-creative process. It is a great compliment to our audience that she returns regularly. She knows she is admired and loved here."

After their initial encounter 17 years ago, Maillot and Vishneva made it a point to follow each other's careers. Despite sharing an attachment of sorts, though, the two didn't meet or talk again until 2012, when Vishneva traveled to Maillot's home in Monaco and requested that he create a piece specifically for her.

"We decided to try, to see how we would feel in the studio," Vishneva said. "For him, it was very important that we have chemistry. And on the second day, he returned and said, 'Yes, we will definitely work together.'"

For the past 20 years, Maillot — who doesn't utilize counts and simply improvises — has made it a point to work only with dancers from his own company. "Switch" was the first exception.

The 35-minute piece, which also stars Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo dancers Bernice Coppieters and Gaëtan Morlotti, features music by Danny Elfman, the frontman of rock band Oingo Boingo and composer of the main theme for "The Simpsons" and tunes for Tim Burton's films. Although not held together by a story, "Switch," richly layered with music, acting, contemporary ballet routines and an unconventional use of pointe shoes, has a cinematic flavor.

"These three people, who for me are the symbols of dance, would never have met if this creation had not happened," Maillot said. "So for me, dance is discovering what's impossible. It's talking about what you cannot say. It's experiencing things that are not planned. Seeing these three monsters dancing, forgetting their hierarchy ... and social standing, it's magic."

Vishneva's relationship with Carlson began more recently. The California-born choreographer, who is deeply inspired by poets, started by asking the dancer to accompany her in reading Arseny Alexandrovich Tarkovsky's works, which form the basis of each movement. Then, instead of discussing technique or style, the duo listened to an estimated 50 CDs, including some by Björk, before picking the musical direction for "Woman in a Room."

The 35-minute solo routine is a career first, Vishneva admitted, inasmuch as her body is moving in ways it hasn't before. The entire process also encouraged her to dig deep and peel back her own layers.

"I've always had the need to share solitude," said Carlson, now a Paris resident. "It's only in solitude that you find your essence, you can dream, you have reflections and you have space in which you're free because you're not posing for anyone. Diana has four costume changes onstage, so we see her transformation."

With only a few days before her flight to Costa Mesa, the ballerina reflected on life behind the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain. Until the end of the Cold War more than two decades ago, dancers focused on traditional aesthetics, prohibited from viewing contemporary choreography. After 1991, modern works trickled into the country via videos and increased freedom.

Vishneva finds that her chosen path represents a risk — one she's wholeheartedly committed to.

Her plans include working with the Diana Vishneva Foundation, which aims to improve access to ballet, and supporting young performers in her native country. But for now, she is looking forward to the comfort and inspiration that she associates with the facilities and audience at the Segerstrom Center.

"It will probably sound pathetic, but it doesn't matter if you're 10 years old or who you are today," Vishneva said. "Every time on stage is something that helps me understand who I am, why I am dancing and why dance became the passion of my life."

If You Go

What: Diana Vishneva: "On the Edge"

Where: Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; preview talks begin an hour earlier

Cost: Tickets start at $39


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