Russian Prima Ballerina Beyond the Ballet Domain
Author: ALASTAIR MACAULAY
Date: March 18, 2012
Publisher: The New York Times
Back in the Iron Curtain days when the Russian defectors Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov galvanized the West with their dancing, a great sense of adventure generated from their intense curiosity to master as wide range of new styles as possible. But only the men ventured far into modern dance. Ballet technique is at its most specific when applied to its leading women, few of whom have roamed outside its privileged and brilliant enclosure. Today, however, one Russian ballerina exhibits some of the old Nureyev-Baryshnikov eagerness to move beyond the ballet domain: Diana Vishneva.
She happens to be among the most physically gorgeous women in ballet today; her proportions, her limbs’ flow of curves and the marvelously theatrical legibility of her features all rejoice the eye. Her wide-eyed, full-lipped face encourages you to think she’s the baby-doll type; her career suggests the opposite. Her performances on Friday and Sunday at City Center in “Diana Vishneva: Dialogues” are the latest stage of her quest. As prima ballerina with her home troupe, the Mariinsky (Kirov), she broke the mold by giving acclaimed accounts of two of the most dissimilar female roles in ballet: the Romantic, suffering Giselle and the aggressively percussive, modernist heroine of Balanchine’s “Rubies.” And in her appearances with American Ballet Theater she has tackled a range like Makarova’s, spreading from the 19th-century classics to Balanchine, Ashton, MacMillan and new ballets by Alexei Ratmansky. Yet evidently that’s not enough.
In 2008 she danced a program, “Diana Vishneva: Beauty in Motion,” comprising works by Mr. Ratmansky, Moses Pendleton and Dwight Roden. Though all three took her where she hadn’t been before, only Mr. Ratmansky’s “Pierrot Lunaire” did so rewardingly. In this year’s “Diana Vishneva: Dialogues” she goes further.
A central problem here, however, is that following an injury to Ms. Vishneva’s co-dancer Thiago Bordin the centerpiece of the program, John Neumeier’s “Dialogue,” had to be replaced by the Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Vertigo.” Mr. Bigonzetti not only recycles movement within this duet — part of which is a reworking of the one in his 1996 “Kazimir’s Colors,” danced in 2008 by Pennsylvania Ballet — but also recycles shticks from other ballets of his own. (Several Bigonzetti works are danced by American companies.) So we see again (and again) the woman falling sideways away from her male partner until he catches her by the elbow. Bigonzetti’s worst cliché, the woman’s foot planted confrontationally on the man’s chest, likewise returns here.
Diana Vishneva in Martha Graham's "Errand Into the Maze."
The finale of the Vishneva “Dialogues” is “Subject to Change,” choreographed in 2003 by Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon to the second movement of Mahler’s string-orchestra arrangement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet. The structural gimmick of “Subject to Change” is its use of a red carpet. Four men (from the Mariinsky Ballet) roll it, unroll it, pick up its corners, send waves along it and rotate it. Now and then dancing occurs, some of it on the carpet, some off, and the four men occasionally shout a little Russian, possibly at Fate or the carpet.
Ms. Vishneva, in her most fragile mode, seems to enact the maiden of Schubert’s music who learns that death, at first terrifying, may also bring a calm embrace. The Bolshoi Ballet’s Andrei Merkuriev, partnering her, and the Mariinsky men, take turns suggesting various aspects of death; the Lightfoot-Leon team makes this interesting neither as a drama nor as a dance.
Paradoxically, the few moments in each of these works where Ms. Vishneva makes a wonderful effect are images of conventional ballet beauty. In a sudden arabesque, for example, her frame exemplifies the radiant line and grandiloquent energy of ballet. You want to applaud her for trying to extend her range, but choreography that deals in stale devices does not lead you to admire her taste. And the use of taped music in no way helps.
The program began, however, with a substantial work, Martha Graham’s “Errand Into the Maze” (1947), a mythological drama that has always been easy to interpret as an allegory for a woman’s changing feelings about fear (possibly fear of masculinity and sex). When Ms. Vishneva and the Graham company’s Abdiel Jacobsen danced this in the same theater on Wednesday night at the Graham gala, Brian Seibert (whose review appeared in The New York Times on Friday) was one of several New York critics who found Ms. Vishneva’s performance impressive.
Friday’s performance, unfortunately, showed Ms. Vishneva in less inspired mood. Her dynamics were soft, her manner politely martyred. After the man’s first departure she gently traced a foot in a low semicircle, as if to say: “Oh good, he’s gone! I can do one of my ronds de jambe à terre. I feel much better now.”