American Ballet Theatre
by Jerry Hochman
June 24, July 3, July 6, 2009 -- Lincoln Center, Metropolitan Opera House, New York
What does it take to be the best ballerina in the world?
I’m not sure I know the answer (and I’m certain I haven’t had the opportunity to see every dancer who might qualify, whatever being the ‘best’ might mean). But for me the answer can be found by weighing a combination of somewhat immeasurable factors (technical and dramatic prowess; objective and subjective impression), together with a warm stage persona, incandescent presence, emotional magnetism compelling enough to make the third wall disappear, and stunning artistic versatility, which together would make me want to go anywhere to see her dance.
Had I the time and resources, I would travel the world just to see Diana Vishneva dance.
For now, though, limited as I am to New York, it is sufficient to have witnessed her consecutive dazzling performances during American Ballet Theatre’s current season at the Met. Ms. Vishneva may not be the ‘best’ at each of the diverse roles she has assayed within the past few weeks (Giselle, Odette/Odile, Sylvia, and Juliet – although to me she is the premier current Giselle), but she is undeniably the finest at all of them collectively.
Although I may take issue with Kevin McKenzie’s restrictive casting opportunities for principal roles, there is no denying that one could attend any ABT performance now and nearly always see a superb performance by an extraordinary ballerina, each more successful than the other as measured by certain snapshots in performance time, each one thoroughly meriting the inevitable standing ovations, and each one being an individual and unique triumph. I could wax eloquent, or try to, about many of them – and have. But Diana Vishneva is different. She controls the execution of the steps, the nuances necessary to make her character real, and the performing space around her. But more than that, she controls time.
If there was one role that I considered her weakest (which, of course, is relative), it was Odette/Odile. After seeing her dance the role(s) previously, I felt that she lacked appropriate weight: as good a technician and actress as she was, she still was no swan queen. [By way of comparison, I thought the same about Gelsey Kirkland’s Odette/Odile. I adored everything that Gelsey ever danced – except her Swan Lake was more like Sparrow Pond.] But one benefit of watching a dancer grow over time – even a dancer who is already world class, is to see her overcome perceived deficiencies and through sheer determination and perfectionism prove any naysayer wrong
And so she did with this season’s Odette/Odile. Ms. Vishneva’s overall performance was light years from what I had observed previously. Indeed, during her initial solo in Act II, I thought I was witness to the most amazing Odette I’d ever seen. Of course she executed perfectly, mimed with clarity, and pulled every emotional trigger that could possibly be pulled. But all Odettes at this level do that. Ms. Vishneva did “little” things (“little” meaning less obvious, rather than not difficult) that carried her performance to a level where superlatives are totally inadequate. A deconstruction of her performance (or any performance, for that matter) cannot sufficiently convey what essentially is an indelible impression, but as an example, Ms. Vishneva did not just lightly come down off pointe, which is what one expects great ballerinas to do: she stretched the time as she lowered her foot from pointe position to the floor so that it seemed to take emotional hours as her foot descended millimeter by millimeter – and she did it every time. Her portrayal was so moving, so exhilarating and exhausting to watch, that it prompted the most deafening hushed silence I’ve ever heard at the Met or any other theatre. The totally bewitched (and very knowledgeable) audience knew it was seeing a performance of historic proportions.
The fact that, in the end, the performance did not, to my objective mind (sometimes – rarely, but sometimes, I can be objective about Vishneva) ultimately achieve perfection doesn’t really matter. At the conclusion of a series of quicksilver diagonal turns at the end of the Act II pas de deux (steps that Nina Ananiashvili omitted from her farewell performance), I saw the floor reach up ever so slightly and nip Ms. Vishneva’s toe shoe, which affected her rhythm for a split second, which affected her concentration such that a second later she missed a step. A 9.9 instead of a 10. Her energy level and focus seemed to diminish a bit after that, and her Odile, improved though it was, wasn’t quite yet in the same galaxy as her Odette. But knowing that Vishneva was merely human was somehow reassuring. And her performance made me wish that Gelsey had tried the role another time in New York.
Ms. Vishneva’s Juliet was near-perfect as well. She is taller than she appears on stage, so there’s more body to move and to be moved as it hurtles through MacMillan’s choreography. But Ms. Vishneva turned this into a performance asset – step after every passion-driven step. She did everything the other great Juliets do – only stronger, more lyrical, and more powerful. At times, I felt as if I were watching a super-sized Alessandra Ferri (for me the quintessential MacMillan Juliet).
Why only near-perfect? Maybe a little too much flailing of her arms – particular before and during The Scream. But she did things I’ve never seen anyone do before. Following the usual ‘not-now-daddy-I-have-a-headache’ in the ballroom-ante-room scene, she made her body go dramatically and incredibly limp (audience laughter at the ‘headache’ turned immediately to gasps). And she executed perhaps the most famous non-movement image in ballet – when Juliet, on the edge of her bed, tries to think of a way to avoid a forced marriage to Paris – with an astonishing blend of subtlety and precision. Not only could one see the light bulb go off in her head as her mind’s eye finally sees what she needs to do (and which is essential to make the scene work), one could observe the idea as it took hold, and watch as the darkness slowly turned to light. And this breathtaking mini-performance occurs with no muscle movement, no eyebrow raising, no head cocking – just from the way her eyes gradually revealed the light emanating from within (again, her ability to stretch time). Absolutely perfect.
But perhaps the most surprising, and most accomplished, portrayal of them all (aside from her Giselle, which I’ve described previously), was her Sylvia. I have a hard time with Ashton’s “Sylvia”: I find it too fussy, too busy, too silly; too modern to be classic, and too old-fashioned to be modern -- nowhere near what Ashton had previously created, aided by a somewhat superior libretto, with his incomparable “The Dream.” But with Ms. Vishneva, “Sylvia” came to life.
Forget about the masterful execution of Ashton’s dizzying choreography – again, they all do that. It was her characterization, through her acting and attitude, that made “Sylvia” not only bearable, but thrilling. Ms. Vishneva was no one-dimensional Amazon – she was a vibrant and vulnerable nymph (not to be confused with a sylph). But most of all, her Sylvia enjoyed being a nymph, and Vishneva enjoyed being Sylvia. She was having (or appeared to be having) a blast, and the fun was contagious -- while her other characterizations would grab your heart and not let go, Vishneva's Sylvia tickled it.
Word of Vishneva’s extraordinary Sylvia apparently had spread: clearly it was considered a performance that had to be seen. Not only was the Met filled with balletomanes who postponed their Fourth of July weekend to witness The Event - . Vishneva’s portrayal also was monitored by several ABT ballerinas who themselves do superb Sylvias (and only one of whom might have been there just to watch Vishneva’s partner). Vishneva was that good.
Whether it be tragedy (Juliet), comedy (Kitri)(a prior season), pastiche (Sylvia), Romantic (Giselle); drama (Manon)(again, a prior season); classic (Odette/Odile) – there seems to be nothing that Ms. Vishneva cannot do. Does this make her the best ballerina in the world? I don’t know. But I do know that whenever she is on stage, I hear the siren calling ‘come watch me dance; come dance with me; the best is yet to be’. And I know that I will cherish the memories of her performances for a lifetime.
So whether Diana Vishneva is the best ballerina in the world doesn't mater. What ultimately matters is that, if I could, I would travel the world just to see Diana Vishneva dance.