Review: Diana Vishneva - On the Edge - London Coliseum

Performance: 14 - 18 April 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 17 April 2015

Performance reviewed: 14 April 2015

Several years ago – in October 2007, to be precise – I had a lucky break, for which I shall ever be grateful. I happened to be in St Petersburg on the one-and-only evening that Diana Vishneva performed Silenzio, a remarkable show at the Mariinsky Theatre that celebrated this even more remarkable ballerina. At the time, I described it as “Pina Bausch meets Petipa” and concluded my review by saying: “As a gala, Vishneva and her collaborators have redefined the genre; as an event, it was stunning, spectacular and innovative, like nothing else I’ve ever seen in dance”. After at least ten curtain calls and probably more than 30 minutes after the show had officially “finished”, its star reprised The Dying Swan for her diehard fans. I’ve unashamedly been one of them, ever since.

More than seven years have elapsed since that unforgettable night and this divinity of dance continues to push boundaries. If one needs a definition of a “creative powerhouse” in ballet (a phrase used in an important recent debate about the future of the art) then one need look no further than Diana Vishneva; a ballerina who is not content to see out her career just by giving state-of-the-art performances of the classic roles.

The two works that comprised her On the Edge programme were risky, provocative and expressive. They were, indeed, edgy! More than any other quality, the programme showcased Vishneva’s masterful stagecraft; her ability to hold an audience in London’s largest theatre (almost) on her own, not just through the elegance of her movement but in the charisma of a smile or the direction of a glance. This is an entertainer in the same mould as Garland, Astaire or Mercury: a star with that rarest of qualities, capable of captivating an audience by the most mundane activity; in her case, at one point, simply by slicing lemons.

The opening work, Switch, represents Vishneva’s recent collaborations with Jean-Christophe Maillot (the avant garde leader of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo) and featured two dancers from his company: Gaëtan Morlotti and Bernice Coppieters. As well as providing pictures in an exhibition of Vishneva’s star quality, Switch was also a fascinating hors d’oeuvres for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo’s residency at the same theatre, next week, when they will be performing Maillot’s Romeo et Juliette [23-25 April].

Maillot’s Switch concerns the inner life of an artist. Vishneva – cast to type – is a celebrated dancer; we deduce this by the presence, in her room, of a barre and a copy of Edgar Degas’ famous statuette of the Little Dancer. Her life is necessarily ascetic; shorn of the pleasures that might inhibit performance. She watches Morlotti and Coppieters (an especially imposing dancer who may be the ballerina’s alter-ego) enjoying life; the Switch coming with a dramatic change of clothing (Vishneva’s gorgeous costume designed by Karl Lagerfeld) and her rebuttal of “art without life”, the barre being pushed to the ground.

Set to a composite of recorded music by Danny Elfman, Maillot’s choreography was replete with references and associations to the icons of classical ballet, both in the language (deep pliés and perpendicular arabesques) and the roles (lots of graceful arm fluttering bringing back memories of Vishneva’s exquisite Dying Swan). But, more than this layered deconstruction of ballet, Maillot’s work allowed full vent to the ballerina’s arresting expressiveness; the yearning for an existence beyond her art and the switch to embrace a world outside of the barre were drawn with a fine detail. The engrossing success of the piece owed much to the enveloping roles of Morlotti and Coppieters.

We moved from the story of one woman in her studio to the Woman in a Room, a long and absorbing solo, choreographed and designed by the French-based, US-born choreographer, Carolyn Carlson. This work seems to fit Vishneva in much the same way that Mats Ek’s Bye has defined the later stages of Sylvie Guillem’s career. Created for Vishneva in 2013 (although Carlson made Man in a Room, 13 years’ earlier), it is a dance designed around the dancer; and in particular, her inquisitive, sensitive, spiritual personality. I can’t imagine it to be danced by anyone other than Vishneva.

I’m glad that I made the Pina Bausch analogy – after Silenzio – over seven years’ ago because it is still so relevant to the metamorphosis and transformations in Carlson’s piece; notably in the long, symbolic ending of Vishneva cutting lemons and placing them on a silver platter before descending into the audience to distribute them, which is about as Bauschian as it gets. It wouldn’t work (and doesn’t work) in the hands of so many other imitators but Vishneva has that special sparkle to enable the simplest act to shine. It helps (as with Bausch) that her actions are accompanied by the most appropriate – and soulful – music in René Aubry’s deliciously infectious Lungomare.

The notion that one woman can hold a large audience in her thrall for almost an hour in a solo that simply articulates the solitude and introspection of a woman in a room – changing clothes, staring through a window at a wind-blown tree, dancing around and on a large wooden table – is hard to imagine. That she succeeds is an achievement that has to be seen. If there was a moment that I began to wonder if the direction was beginning to meander, the next would again fire up my imagination.

In 2007, Silenzio was a celebration of this great ballerina’s career and these works by Maillot and Carlson undertake a similar investigation into her artistic life and provide yet more evidence of Vishneva’s desire to drive her artistry onto a different plane. But, they dig even more deeply, searching into the soul of what it means to be an artist. Just as on that memorable night all those years’ ago, it was an honour and a privilege to be given this insight; a small peek into the artistic journey of a legendary performer.

Continues at the London Coliseum on Saturday 18 April

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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