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C California Style

Vishneva presenting the Golden Mask award to Terrence W. Dwyer, the president and chief operating officer of the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts. PHOTO: Doug Gifford.
Reflections included a world premiere of Cinque by Mauro Bigonzetti. PHOTO: Doug Gifford.
Judy Morr and Sergei Danilian. PHOTO: Chris Emerick.
The artist performing with Desmond Richardson in Beauty in Motion. PHOTO: Gene Schiavone.
In rehearsal. PHOTO: Alex Gouliaev.
Segerstrom Hall. PHOTO: RMA Photography.
ABT's world premiere of The Firebird with Natalia Osipova at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in 2012.
In 2006, For 4, by Christopher Wheeldon, was created for Kings of the Dance.
Vishneva performing the lead in Romeo and Juliet.
Le Parc. PHOTO: Sasha Gouliaev.
"You have to reload yourself to understand [each choreographer's] new style and it's very painful," says Diana Vishneva. Illusions Like Swan Lake. PHOTO: Sasha Gouliaev.

Born-Again Ballerina

by C California Style

Russian dancer Diana Vishneva’s career experiences a renaissance, thanks to support from a far-off collaborator, Orange County’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Diana Vishneva isn’t a stranger to glamorous locales. Today, the dancer is a vision at the Hôtel de Paris in Monaco. She resembles a Sargent painting, her hair slicked back, large black eyes luminous. She’s just finished a long day of rehearsals with Jean-Christophe Maillot, the artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, a neo-classical choreographer who draws work from the likes of Balanchine and Pina Bausch. “We met when I was a baby at the Vaganova Academy,” Vishneva says. “And after 17 years we are finally working together. You can imagine how when you are waiting that long for something, you become a little bit afraid. But the creative process is incredible. This is what I need—this is my life.”

Vishneva is obsessed with the creative process. At 37, she still looks like a teenager, but for a dancer over 30, the twilight of one’s career looms large. She’s already checked all the prima ballerina boxes: winning the 1994 Prix de Lausanne at age 17, joining the Mariinsky Ballet, being promoted to principal after one year, joining the American Ballet Theatre. And she’s danced all the leading roles: Don Quixote, La Bayadère, Swan Lake, Giselle, Rubies. But as an artist, one must always be pushing forward. “After everything I’ve achieved in my career, I can now build my own relationships with choreographers. I feel more free. And I can pass new ballets on to others,” she says.

On the Edge, which debuts at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts this November, is her latest collaborative project. (It’s on the heels of two award-winning shows, entitled Beauty in Motion and Dialogues.) This program introduces two choreographers rarely seen in the States. The first is Maillot, who is creating a brand-new pas de trois called Switch, with music by Danny Elfman. The second piece was created for her by the Bay Area-born Carolyn Carlson, who has resided in France since 1971. Carlson’s new piece, called Woman in a Room, is set to short compositions by Italian post-minimalist composer and cellist Giovanni Sollima, and French composer René Aubry.

It’s always a challenge for ballerinas to transition from classical creatures to contemporary ones: handling awkward movements as easily as échappées. “And that challenge is not just physical, it’s a question of your mind, too,” Vishneva explains. In her collaboration with Carlson, Vishneva traveled to Paris, spending six hours a day reading poetry by the famed Soviet bard Arseny Alexandrovich Tarkovsky, talking with Carlson and looking at pictures. “She asked me to do movement while thinking about my childhood, and my past. Choreographers are very interesting. They look you in the eye and they scan you like an MRI, and then they are inspired.”  The resulting piece is a 40-minute solo, with three costume changes and various props—including 50 lemons and a knife!

Few know that one of the reasons artists like Vishneva can have such long and dynamic careers is thanks to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and its executive vice president, the soft-spoken Judy Morr. Since the center opened in 1986, Morr has quietly brought in some of the most diverse and avant-garde dance programming in the state. She thinks nothing of inviting the envelope-pushing Netherlands Dance Theater or hosting ABT’s world premiere of The Firebird. “My philosophy is that if they are the best artists, the audience is going to respond to that,” Morr says, “The best artists of course are the suggestive ones,” she adds.

Enter Sergei Danilian of Ardani Artists. He had worked with Morr since 2001 to bring the Eifman Ballet of Saint Petersburg, the Mariinsky Ballet and the Bolshoi to Orange County. “Sergei’s not your typical agent; he’s not your typical anything,” says Morr wryly, of the maverick producer who runs the company with his wife, Gaiane. Danilian and Morr hatched a plan to create Kings of the Dance in 2006, a jewel box show featuring four of the most athletic male dancers in the world, who would be performing a mixture of new pieces and timeworn classics.

The collaborations have only become more ambitious: In 2006, Ardani and Morr brought 600 people in from Russia—two orchestras, an opera company, a ballet company and a chorus—to commemorate the opening of the new concert hall and the 25th anniversary of the center. Vishneva debuted Beauty in Motion here in 2008, and in 2011, Reflections became an artists-in-residence program of sorts, with six of the most senior ballerinas from Russia spending weeks living at the Wyndam Hotel and working with various choreographers.

“We bring a really great creative, emotional life to the center,” Danilian says. “During Reflections, Henry Segerstrom and his wife, Elizabeth, came to watch rehearsal one Saturday and he told me, ‘I’m going to stay half an hour.’ He ended up spending four hours watching. Afterward, he hugged me and said, ‘Now I understand why we built this theater.’”

Five years ago, Vishneva crossed the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow to collect The Golden Mask award (which is a little bit like a Tony in the Russian performing arts world). “It’s unbelievable,” marvels Danilian. “People in Moscow are shocked that the center is so far away, and yet they give the programming the national award in Russia.”

But that’s what happens when you bring together this unusual triumvirate. “If people trust each other, it can create a really good collaboration,” Danilian explains. Morr agrees: “I would say he has the same admiration and respect for artists that I have. And whenever somebody decides to go forward on a project, we both will turn the world upside down to make it happen.” The winners? Vishneva thinks she’s pretty lucky. “Who doesn’t love Orange County?” she says incredulously. On the Edge, Nov. 6-10; scfta.org.

Written and edited by Elizabeth Khuri Chandler