Title: Prima Ballerina With Supple Grace and a Will of Steel
Author: Roslyn Sulcas
Date: June 14, 2007
Publisher: The New York Times
When Diana Vishneva was 9, she was denied admission to the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Leningrad, the school that has produced generations of stars (Nijinsky, Pavlova, Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov among them). Her spine was malformed and would cause her problems later, the authorities said. And her legs didn’t lift high enough.
The experience marked her indelibly, said Ms. Vishneva, now 30 and, as a principal dancer with the Kirov Ballet and American Ballet Theater, widely acknowledged as one of the world’s great ballerinas. “Before that, I’d always been in first place for everything,” she said, speaking through a translator at her temporary home, a comfortable apartment near Lincoln Center. “Here there were about 90 children, from all over the Soviet Union, for each available place. It made me understand that not everything comes easily. After that, every day my mother would stretch my legs higher. When they wouldn’t take me, I was determined to get in.”
Ms. Vishneva (pronounced Veesh-NYO-va), who is performing with American Ballet Theater during the company’s Metropolitan Opera House season, would undoubtedly triumph in any ballerina casting call. She is as thin and pretty as might be expected, with dark hair, long eyelashes and skin so pale that one could imagine she never leaves the theater. In rehearsal she is intently focused but relaxed; she chats and smiles easily with her coaches and partners, but she never deviates from the work at hand.
In performance Ms. Vishneva is quite another being, an astonishing combination of abandon and control in a range of ballets encompassing the 19th-century classics as well as works by Ashton, Balanchine, MacMillan and William Forsythe. While this breadth of repertory is no longer uncommon for Kirov dancers, Ms. Vishneva is exceptional in her ability to put her supple plastique — her gloriously articulate back from which all movement appears to emanate, her elongated line in arabesque, her exquisitely fluid arms — at the service of the choreography. (Her dramatic intelligence and timing are also impeccable: no one know better how to hold a pause.)
“Who else is equally impressive as Odette and as the lead girl in Balanchine’s ‘Rubies’ — two roles that are almost a contradiction in terms?” Robert Gottlieb wrote in The New York Observer this year. “Vishneva is probably the most accomplished, the most complete, ballerina in the world today.”
In conversation Ms. Vishneva is friendly and voluble, but also guarded. It is soon clear that she possesses that inner thread of steel, a simplicity of purpose, that great artists must have to shut out the world and bring it back at will.
“When I did get into the school two years later, I understood that my childhood had ended,” she said. “I entered a different family, of teachers who I trust and who trust me.” Like countless generations of students before her, from the time the academy was the Imperial Ballet School, presided over by the czars, through the years of Soviet rule, her regime was rigorous: ballet class followed by schoolwork followed by more dance classes — historical dance, character dance, mime and modern — from 9 in the morning until 6 at night, frequently followed by additional rehearsals.
Every day Ms. Vishneva, who lived with her parents (her father is a chemist, her mother an economist) and older sister in a suburb of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, would rise at 6 a.m. to make the 90-minute journey to school. Frequently she would be in the studio practicing before the other pupils arrived. “I was a workaholic from an early age,” she said. “I was often so tired that I slept through the academic classes.”
By the time she was 17, Ms. Vishneva had been asked by Oleg Vinogradov, the director of the Kirov Ballet, to join the company and had won the gold medal at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne competition in Switzerland. Not only did she turn down the prize — a year’s scholarship to an international ballet school of her choice — but she also refused Mr. Vinogradov. “I wanted to finish,” she said. “My school, my teachers — they are holy.”
When Ms. Vishneva did join the Kirov, in 1995, Makhar Vaziev had become the director of the Maryinsky Ballet, as it is known in Russia. (Because the Kirov name became well known in the West in the Soviet era, the company still uses it abroad.) Although Ms. Vishneva said it was “like auditioning all over again,” Mr. Vaziev was not slow to recognize her gifts, giving her the roles of Aurora and Juliet, and promoting her to principal dancer just one year after her entry into the company. More important, as far as she was concerned, he began a program of dancer exchanges with foreign companies, sending her to La Scala and to perform with Vladimir Malakhov’s Berlin State Ballet.
“I learned what it is to be in another company,” she said. “I had to learn new versions of ballet I knew, work to a much heavier schedule than in Russia. I began to feel completely different.”
In 2003 Mr. Vaziev arranged a dancer exchange with Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of Ballet Theater. Since 2005 she has performed with Ballet Theater every year, thrilling audiences with a combination of purity and daring that comes, she says, from intense concentration on every moment of every ballet. “When I learned ‘Giselle,’ ” she said, “I must have rehearsed the first moment, when she opens the cottage door, at least 500 times. I often can’t sleep because I’m thinking about a role — how to make it better, what I didn’t do.”
Asked if this intense work ethic brings her pleasure onstage, Ms. Vishneva, who says she is as shy offstage as she is uninhibited on it, looked slightly puzzled. “I do get satisfaction that it is my movement, my way of dancing,” she said cautiously. “It’s the artistic side of ballet that is important to me. If I didn’t have that, I would have left ballet. When you turn your technique into lightness, that’s what is worthwhile. But it’s an endless quest.”