Title: Three Sides of a Prima Ballerina, Made to Order
Author: Alastair Macaulay
Date: February 23, 2008
Publisher: The New York Times
Audiences who came of age in the Iron Curtain era still find it astonishing to contemplate a career like Diana Vishneva’s. Ms. Vishneva is the prima ballerina of the Maryinsky (Kirov) Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, and appears on its foreign tours, dancing not just its old ballets but also its newly acquired Balanchine repertory. She is a leading guest artist with American Ballet Theater in its New York seasons at the Metropolitan Opera House, dancing both ballet classics and mid-20th-century gems by Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan. Now she is presenting a season of her own at City Center, dancing in a triple bill of ballets created for and around her by more or less eminent choreographers.
Any such career was a mere pipe dream 30 years ago, when Irina Kolpakova of the Kirov was barred from the new choreography of the West, and when Natalia Makarova, by defecting, cut herself off from the Kirov company, whose style she still exemplified. Since the first days of glasnost, other Russian ballerinas — notably Altynai Asylmuratova of the Kirov and Nina Ananiashvili of the Bolshoi (now directing the State Ballet of Georgia, which comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music next week) — have managed to commute between East and West and between old and new, but none have been able to have their cake and eat it too as much as Ms. Vishneva.
She deserves it. It’s hard to think of a more sheerly beautiful ballerina in the world today: the proportions of her body are delectably harmonious, and her porcelain-doll face is both wide-eyed and heart-shaped. And as her program’s title, “Beauty in Motion,” suggests, her beauty carries through from physique into physicality. She really can be doll-like, and sometimes adopts an air of contrived innocence; or she can be a true child of nature, gorgeously and blithely opening her lovely limbs out into the air like a nymph or sylph; or she can be a polished dynamo whose brilliance and control startle. Always she gives off light.
Though these three ballets must have been intended to display all these facets of her while also displaying her as an exponent of the new, they leave audiences feeling that they’re not getting quite enough of her. Of the three, only two bring rewards.
The program is billed as three acts. Act I is Alexei Ratmansky’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” by far the program’s most complex and rewarding work in terms of sheer dance. Schoenberg’s atonal 1912 score, still strange and difficult — even now, it sets listeners’ teeth on edge — abounds in paradoxes. The masculine title role is sung by a woman (here the mezzo-soprano Elena Sommer, singing the German text with a marked Russian accent), whose voice moves between speech and song. The Pierrot of the songs is both hero and fool; the drama contains excitement and pathos, naïveté and violence, and the mood shifts between delicate refinement and populist liveliness.
Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography has a comparable range of paradoxes. It moves between the formal grace of ballet classicism and more deliberately imperfect genres, sometimes in mid-phrase. Its three men and one woman are at times the Pierrot, Harlequin, Cassander and Columbine figures of commedia dell’arte; elsewhere they are all aspects of Pierrot himself. Sometimes Mr. Ratmansky has them moving in four separate but simultaneous solos with marvelous intricacy; sometimes he has them moving together with the lunar fluency of Ashton’s “Monotones,” only to puncture any such ideal serenity.
It is not principally a Vishneva vehicle; Igor Kolb, Mikhail Lobukhin and Alexander Sergeev are equal contributors. But it shows far more facets of both her and them than the rest of the program (though some of its strained naïveté becomes tiresome to those of us who are not devotees of the Pierrot character). Among its incidental fascinations are that it demonstrates Mr. Ratmansky’s skill in choreographing with the ballet vocabulary and, by contrast, his refusal to pigeonhole himself as an academic classicist.
The program’s Act II, “F.L.O.W.” (“For Love of Women”), choreographed by Moses Pendleton, dips in and out of kitsch. Its first scene is a ballet of illusion for three pairs of hands and feet rendered luminous in blue against a black background. Some of the changing current of imagery is both poetic and funny; too bad some of it is merely cute. None of it need be done by Ms. Vishneva. In the final scene she wears a beaded dress/poncho/veil that spreads outward in different shapes as she spins. This is a nice modern descendant of the kind of dance theater that Loie Fuller initiated in the late 19th century, but it too would make the same impression with a far less remarkable dancer.
The central scene of “F.L.O.W.” has Ms. Vishneva horizontal and seemingly nude on a mirrored slope. Now she is a dragonfly on the water’s edge; now a child curling back into fetal shape above her own twin; now one of those Cecil Beaton looking-glass photographs turned into dance; now Narcissus with his/her reflection. Though she never once rises to the vertical stance that is ballet’s element, some of the movement shows off her extraordinary lusciousness. She has stretch within stretch, pliancy forever, and a quality of basking, playful luxuriance that powerfully recalls the Makarova of the 1970s (just as Ms. Vishneva’s bloom and sweetness elsewhere recall Patricia McBride).
Act III, Dwight Roden’s “Three Point Turn,” is wall-to-wall neo-academic, pseudo-erotic cliché for three couples (Ms. Vishneva with Desmond Richardson, Maria Shevyakova with Mr. Lobukhin, and Ekaterina Ivannikova with Mr. Sergeev). Everything onstage — the high extensions, the pirouettes, the lunges, the lifts — is big, showy, fakey, with no contrasts in scale.
Everyone onstage dances like hell, and when we get to hell, it will be full of ballets like this. Its loud rock score, by David Rozenblatt, sounds like a refrigerator copulating with a hot tin roof.