Versatile, Valiant Diana Vishneva

“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... Today, one Russian ballerina exhibits some of the old Nureyev-Baryshnikov eagerness to move beyond the ballet domain: Diana Vishneva,” writes New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay of the international superstar.

Vishneva, is easily one of finest classical ballerinas dancing today. A Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theater and Prima Ballerina with the Marinsky Ballet Company, she also tours extensively as a visiting artist. “It’s never enough for me,” she says. So, she created the Diana Vishneva Foundation for the Coordinated Development of Ballet. The Foundation has a three-fold mission: to improve access to ballet for audiences and students; to support dancers; and to nurture innovative choreography. 

The latter point dovetails fortunately with Vishneva’s passion for new experiences. Since 2008, she has been organizing programs that offer her the opportunity to work with contemporary choreographers on new projects. In Dialogues, Vishneva performed Martha Graham’s Into the Maze, and in Beauty in Motion she performed three pieces created for her her by Alexei Ratmasnky, Moses Pendleton, and Dwight Rhoden.

I spoke via Skype with Diana Visheva in Monte Carlo, where she was working with Maillot, about her artistic vision, approach to training, advice for young dancers, and love for ballet. Read more in this Q&A.  On the Edge premieres November 6-10 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Q: To begin, could you please tell me about the Diana Vishneva Foundation?

V: The foundation supports my efforts to create new contemporary work and to work with contemporary choreographers. I realized I’d like to do something different for myself, and to do it independently — to make decisions by myself and find people who are interested in working with me. As a professional, I would like to be able to achieve something that I can pass to the coming generations, to help kids. I am already producing some programs. I’m inviting kids to the theater and doing some programs with the Vaganova Academy. Step by step, the foundation is moving forward.

Q: How do you prepare yourself to tackle new styles?

V: Of course there are different types of classes for different styles. When you work with contemporary forms of dance you need to be able to change your movements. It helps if you’re already taking different kinds of classes and you have that experience. It’s easier to prepare for different kinds of roles with experience in a more diverse vocabulary, but it’s still different and you have to work hard to change your physicality, step by step with intense training. The choreographers help. Right now I’m working with Jean-Christophe Maillot, at Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. I take class every day with the company to understand the style and principles of the choreographer.

Q: How do you keep a fresh perspective on roles you’ve danced many times?

V: Of course, you’re relearning every time what you had before. It’s like a good wine that becomes more and more tasty. I’m improving my tastes and vision, and also becoming a different person with time. I know that ballerinas don’t’ have long careers, but thinking about where I am today, I feel some times that it’s been 70 years since I began my career! Every role I dance makes me richer spiritually. I was so busy and I danced so many roles, but they never became for me a mechanical or technical job. Every performance I’ve done, I needed to forget what I’d done before and it was something new and fresh. You become different when you travel and dance with new companies. You mature as an artist, and you feel your past relationships affecting you—past teachers, choreographers, and partners. I use all this experience for my own improvement to move myself forward.  It’s never enough for me. It’s always urgent to continue. When you feel, “Here you are. You’ve touched the ceiling and can’t pass it,” your career is over. But luckily I still feel enough air above me and like I can keep moving up and up.

Q: What would you like to work on next?

V: I would like to help not only young dancers but also young choreographers, and I would like to focus on contemporary art. I’m very interested in synthesis, a mix of different forms of media that present dance and body movements with something else.

Q: What advice would you offer young dancers? 

V: To love what you’re doing and dedicate yourself fully to it. And it’s very important to have really strong character. Beyond that, it depends on the individual. It’s very difficult to give general suggestions. It’s so different in different parts of the world. I would give some advice to Russian dancers and different advice to Western dancers. Even in Russia, the different theaters have their own environments. You can’t compare what’s going on at the Bolshoi to the Marinsky. Everywhere it’s different. It’s very important that everyone should understand how they feel and what’s really good for them. Some people are very good teachers but aren’t very good dancers, but can help to develop the future of ballet. You must realize what is your mission. And never stop trying to become who you are. I will always look around to see what else I can do in my life to be someone who will be important on this earth.

Q: With all your focus on new directions, you’re also a great proponent of ballet traditions. Why do you think ballet is still an important or relevant art form?

V: Because through the dance, through the movements, you can express a lot of emotions. You can communicate feelings that someone in the audience will keep forever. Not everyone gets this from watching ballet. For some it’s just visual, but for people who truly love dance, these people have a spiritual experience that you can give them. We spend so many hours to be able to do that, and when you come on stage and you’re ready, you want everyone in the audience to take it with them. If you really understand your body, it’s not comparable to anything else. The feelings that you’re expressing with your movements—it’s not words you can say. When your movements are more powerful than words, it turns the world around to open your self like that.