When Diana Vishneva took her final bow as a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre last summer, after 13 years, she didn’t permanently vanish into the wings.
The 42-year-old left the company to focus on other projects — and ended up taking a few months off from dancing while pregnant with her son, born in May. Since then, Vishneva has been easing her way back into training, with her return to the stage set for late September, when she’ll dance in the Paris Opera Ballet’s gala performance along with the company’s artistic director, Aurélie Dupont. The duo will perform Ohad Naharin’s modern piece, “B/olero,” which they premiered during the Context Dance Festival in 2016. Vishneva founded the festival in 2013.
“That’s a go — the objective has already been set, and by this date you have to be in good shape and good form, and you have to appear onstage,” says Vishneva, who has recently resumed training at Steps on Broadway with Nancy Bielski. The performance will have one notable tweak since its premiere two years ago: Chanel is a sponsor for the gala performance and Karl Lagerfeld is designing the costumes for the piece.
“The costume design has already been done, so [Lagerfeld] is just going to add something or offer some ideas,” she adds; she has yet to see the design. “I don’t know yet — maybe he will be changing the whole thing completely.”
While the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet-trained Vishneva will continue dancing with Mariinsky Ballet as a principal, her professional focus has pivoted to bolstering contemporary dance in Russia through her Context festival, as well as creating opportunities for adults to study ballet recreationally. She’s also been developing a collaborative multimedia dance project, “Sleeping Beauty Dreams,” which will premiere in Miami in December.
“It’s like in Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ — at some point in your life, you start looking for a new form of expression, a new genre,” says Vishneva, sitting in a quiet corner of the discreetly swanky Lowell Hotel. Her hair is pulled back into a neat low bun, and she speaks with an eloquent thoughtfulness reflective of the je ne sais quoi that she brings to her craft as a dancer. “Being a classical ballet dancer, absolutely the heritage and the tradition of classical ballet is very important to me, but at some point I started feeling that it was like some kind of box, and I felt that it was too tight for me to stay in that space. That’s why I started looking into modern dance, and various genres and forms of dance.”
“Sleeping Beauty Dreams” represents a worldwide collaboration across different media. The piece, choreographed by Edward Clug, incorporates 3-D imaging technology, including live digital avatar projection, electronic music, and art, and explores the inner world of Aurora — a character Vishneva is well acquainted with, having danced the classical ballet many times throughout her career — while she’s asleep.
“We are taking a pretty well-known text of ‘The Sleeping Beauty,’ but what we do is we explore these blind spots where no one knows actually what is going on, what’s happening when the Sleeping Beauty is actually sleeping — what the Sleeping Beauty dreams about,” she says. “It’s a black-and-white fairy tale, but in our vision goodness and evil are embodied in one person, and they define the struggle when goodness and evil are within this very person.”
In a way, she’s highlighting the character’s relatability.
“There are some universal themes there, because Sleeping Beauty is associated with beauty, with kindness, with happiness, but right near her there is some evil that punished her,” she says. “So the Sleeping Beauty of today is someone who is experiencing inner struggle. When she falls asleep it’s one person, but when she wakes up it’s a different person — it’s a more mature person, someone who has gained a lot of inner experience over this time of sleep. Maybe the sleep was given to her in order for her to go through all the stages of maturity and wake up and be ready for her Prince Charming to come to her,” she adds.
In addition to that project, Vishneva is working to expand the Context festival, bringing it to new locations worldwide including Tel Aviv, London, and hopefully soon New York. She’s also continuing to develop her dance and fitness studio Context Pro in St. Petersburg, which offers adult classes in ballet, yoga and gymnastics — which, while common offerings in America, are not part of the canon of extracurricular offerings in Russia.
“It’s a totally new thing for Russia because, for instance, here in the Untied States, every child — it doesn’t matter what age the child is — or an adult person, can actually come to a studio and start dancing or doing ballet classes,” she says. “But it’s quite new for Russia. Any person — they don’t need some professional background or training — can just come in and start training. We don’t have anything like that in Russia. That’s why I decided to open the door to it in Russia; to introduce Russians to it.”
The concept has been popular so far, although introducing the concept has involved addressing doubts around why a non-professional would want to start learning ballet. Vishneva has also started taking baby steps into the world of teaching ballet herself, but for now, she credits a new teacher in her life as the driving factor behind her new professional focus. “My baby teaches me, I would say, time management, to be able to move very fast, to focus on the task at hand,” she says.
“All your life long, you are your own center, you are the center of everything that is going on around you. So at the very beginning, you just don’t notice it. Later on you dislike it, then you get worried about it. But then you don’t know where to go in order to avoid it. When my son was born, I would say I got completely relieved from this feeling of being the center. My center actually shifted — now it’s on my child, because I have actually become an observer of myself,” she says. “What the outcome will be both in my life and in my creative life — well, we’ll see.”