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Robert Abrams
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Diana Vishneva – Beauty in Motion

by Robert Abrams
February 22, 2008
New York City Center
130 West 56th Street
(Audience Entrance is on West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues)
(Entrance for Studios and Offices is on West 56th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues)
New York, NY 10019
Diana Vishneva, a ballerina whose legend precedes her, presented three works at City Center: Pierrot Lunaire with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, F.L.O.W. (For Love of Women) with choreography by Moses Pendleton, and Three Point Turn with choreography by Dwight Rhoden. Ms. Vishneva, who is often associated with traditional Ballet roles, commissioned new works in an effort to be radical and daring. Sometimes the dances succeeded and sometimes they failed. Of course, by failure, I mean that they didn't work for me. Others might have a different reaction.

I will start with the parts of Pierrot Lunaire that I liked. Ms. Vishneva was expressive in her solo. There were a few moments of impressive dancing, such as some very fast spins, first by Ms. Vishneva progressing across the stage, and then by one of the male dancers on one spot. These moments got, and deserved, enthusiastic applause from the audience. The final image of the dance, where Ms. Vishneva is held aloft in a vertical tableau, was very nice. There was good choreography in this work, but to find it one would have to ruthlessly edit it down to five minutes or less from its current 35 minute length.

The choreography was organized into 21 sections, with a theme based very loosely on characters from Commedia dell'Arte, of which Pierrot Lunaire is one. Other than that, I didn't see any structure, either as a narrative or a geometry. Most of it, with the exceptions noted above, were boring, unremarkable and unfocused. The work was consistently interminable. The thought that kept coming into my head as I watched it was "When is this going to end?", alternating with "Oh no, another section!"

A lot of the choreography was clowning, which is its own art form. Commedia dell'Arte includes clowning within its tradition. The trouble was that the ballet was trying to reference Commedia dell'Arte while also being abstract dance. As a result, most of the time, neither the dancing nor the clowning was strong enough to generate interest.

The music is an atonal orchestral work by Arnold Schoenberg, also titled Pierrot Lunaire, composed in 1912. I was not fond of the screeching violins. The music was discordant in a way that went beyond just the screeching. There was a singer too, who can probably sing quite well in a musical concert, but here I just found it annoying. It is possible that this music is supposed to be discordant. There are people who regard Mr. Schoenberg's music as masterpieces of the 20th-century repertoire. Masterpieces are not necessarily works that are popular; they can be daring breaks from convention. I am open to daring and heretical art (such as American Tango danced to selected Hustle songs); it is just that in the case of Mr. Schoenberg's radical break from tradition, I would rather not have to listen to it. Frankly, I do not believe that I would have liked the ballet even if I did like Mr. Schoenberg's music. I do not mean to imply that the music was "bad" or badly played. There were other critics who liked Mr. Schoenberg's music, but who reacted negatively to the music in Three Point Turn because that music was too much like Rock music for them. As an audience member, sometimes you want to be challenged and sometimes you want to be entertained. Knowing what you like and what you are getting into with a particular work of art helps you to pick the right show for the evening. Art is supposed to inspire passionate reactions, not all heading in the same direction. Knowing those reactions helps the audience decide which shows to see. Absent actual audience research, a critic can only report on his or her own reactions, which is why dance fans should read more than one critic, and then attend shows that intrigue them so they can decide for themselves. And then send in a letter to the editor so we can let others know what you thought of the show, regardless of whether you agree with our assessment or not.

I thought the all white costumes, sort of a cross between a clown outfit and a painter's outfit (the kind you wear that you don't mind getting dirty when painting an apartment), were unflattering, especially because they obscured the dancers' bodies without offering any amplification of the dancers' motion in return. Ms. Vishneva's second costume was better, but still fairly blah (sort of a dull tan colored tunic). Come to think of it, the costumes might have been okay had the dancers actually been splattering colored paint across the stage. I have seen a modern dance company have a sculptor cover a model in plaster of paris while dancers danced behind and around them, so if the goal is to try something new and daring, why not try dancing with paint? And then the dance company could auction off the paint splattered costumes to raise money for the next show.

Ballet audiences often applaud in the middle of a dance for particularly good moments. This did happen a couple of times during Pierrot Lunaire, including for the sections I mentioned initially. However, other than those times, the applause was tepid and someone in the audience with some skill at projecting her voice shouted out "No Applause! No Applause!" I am not making this up. This person did not shout out when the whole audience erupted in applause, so I think it is a reasonable guess to say that she was expressing disapproval of the dance, not disapproval of other audience members' clapping for sections she liked (plus I did see two people leave the theatre in the middle of Act I – it is impossible to know why they left, but if it was out of disgust, they made a mistake, as my review of Acts II and III will make clear). Of course, patterns of audience reaction need to be viewed in context just as much as music or dance itself. After all, it was apparently common around 1912, when Pierrot Lunaire the music was first performed, for audience members to hiss at performances they disliked, and even to get in fist fights with other audience members who they disagreed with. The program notes from tonight's show say that people who heard Pierrot Lunaire when it was premiered on October 16, 1912 "were generally enthused" because "[no] more than three" people were hissing during the performance. By that standard, Pierrot Lunaire the ballet was a smashing success. However, I do not think this would be a fair comparison since it is probable that audiences' propensity to hiss has changed since 1912. And then there is the whole question of cultural standards favoring silence versus call and response, which is a topic for another article. There are other methods of analysis worth a try. For instance, in a contingent value study, one asks people how much they would pay for an item, usually one for which there is no direct market, like air quality. If one did a contingent value study of this ballet to ask people how much they thought it was worth, I suspect the value would turn out to be negative. Of course, if Pierrot Lunaire were presented to an audience of people who have previously expressed enthusiasm for Mr. Schoenberg's music, the results of a contingent value study might be quite positive, and if one did the study with both audiences, one could begin to tease apart the value of the music from the value of the dance. If I had the opportunity to collect such potentially tantalizing data, I might be willing to watch Pierrot Lunaire again, despite my other statements to the contrary.

The next two acts were quite extraordinary, leaving me feeling glad to have seen the whole evening's works. The second two acts also provided hard evidence that Ms. Vishneva is as good a dancer as her reputation suggests.

F.L.O.W. was choreographed by Moses Pendleton, who is best known for his work with Momix. Mr. Pendleton creates innovative dances, often using props of various kinds. (The prop designer was Michael Curry. The costume designer was Phoeby Katz.) His work is of the sort that runs the risk of being gimmicky, but the combination of his skill as a choreographer and the skill of his dancers ensures that all you see is the wonder of dance. After all, a tap shoe, as a prop, is a kind of a gimmick too, but no one thinks of it that way because it has been used many times to excellent effect. The main difference between a tap shoe and Mr. Pendleton's props is a lack of familiarity. Ms. Vishneva chose a perfect partner in Mr. Pendleton to help show that she can dance radical, modern works just as well as she can dance classical Ballet.

The first segment, "Swans Dream" danced to nanO, begins with a blue, glowing forearm that appears from the blackness. The arm floats across the stage. Now there are three arms, and now three arms and three legs. The audience laughs happily. The music has good melody and rhythm. The floating body parts form stick figure bodies, hearts, sometimes smiling or frowning faces, and even some pecking ducks (or, since this is Ballet, maybe they were swans). The arms and legs, forming a normal body except that the body is missing, dance riffs on classical Ballet poses. The audience applauds. So do the hands floating on stage. The body juggles a pair of eyes that become a tiara. The parts recede until three hands are left playing with yoyos. The hands fly away. It is not easy to get a room full of jaded New Yorkers to experience the delight of childhood, but Mr. Pendleton's creation danced by Ms. Vishneva, Maria Shevyakova and Ekaterina Ivannikova pulled it off with aplomb.

The second segment, "Glass Awakening" danced to Space Weaver, was a solo for Ms. Vishneva, dressed in a gold, skin tight outfit. This work, in which Ms. Vishneva performs extended ground work on a large mirrored wedge, was just as innovative and well danced as "Swans Dream", but this time instead of seeing half of Ms. Vishneva, we saw two of her. There were times that I could have sworn that her reflection was just as much a real person dancing as she was. The movements in this work started out small and then opened up. At the end, she sinks below the rear edge of the wedge, as if the hard mirror were the surface of a pliant pond. The audience responded with enthusiasm.

The third segment, "Waters Flower" danced to The Moola Mantra, could be called a one-trick pony, but only if it were a really special pony desired more than anything by a child. Ms. Vishneva walked on stage wearing what might be called a Chinese bead curtain hat (and a silver dress). A ring was affixed to her head, and from that ring hung many nearly body length strands of beads. The choreography wasn't all that complicated, in that after she got going she spent the entire number spinning continuously in a clockwise direction, but it showed the beauty that can be found in a basic motion. (And in that respect was similar to classic, International-style Viennese Waltz which has perhaps three simple, but very difficult, steps repeated over and over again.) The "hat" on her head amplified her motions in ever varying ways, revealing a hidden world. Sometimes you just need to strip dance down to its basics in order to show the beauty and the dancer's mastery: way cool.

The final act of the night, Three Point Turn, choreographed by Dwight Rhoden, was radical and daring, successfully so. The dancing was energetic with sharp and finished movements. The dancers displayed very good extension. They never stopped moving; they always danced with evident technique. I thought the costumes were appealing. The costumes, by Isabel Rubio, showed off the dancers' bodies, which was appropriate for this work.

Ms. Vishneva was paired with Desmond Richardson, who happens to be Black. They both showed themselves to be remarkable dancers. The fact that they were portraying an inter-racial couple was completely unremarkable. Mikhail Lobukhin and Maria Shevyakova, and Alexander Sergeev and Ekaterina Ivannikova also danced well. The lighting design, by Antonio Marques, lit the dancing well.

I wasn't crazy about the music, by David Rozenblatt: it had somewhat more screeching and feedback in it than I generally prefer, although some of the music was okay, and some parts were very cool, such as when they danced Ballet to drumming. Overall, I thought that the music was a distraction that pulled too much attention away from the excellent dancing, but part of the problem with the music was simply that it was over-amplified. If they lowered the volume about 20%, I think that you would hear the music better and that the dancing would have a better fit with the music, even if the music itself was not changed.

The whole presentation of Three Point Turn was very focused. I would be more than willing to see Three Point Turn again, especially if the volume was lowered a little.

On balance, Diana Vishneva – Beauty in Motion was as beautiful as it was daring. If Pierrot Lunaire is jettisoned in favor of something new, Ms. Vishneva should present this program again. Or just present Acts II and III: they were enough to be worth the price of the ticket.
Diana Vishneva and Avenhsiv Anaid in FLOW (Glass Awakening)

Diana Vishneva and Avenhsiv Anaid in FLOW (Glass Awakening)

Photo © & courtesy of Nina Alovert

Diana Vishneva in FLOW (Waters Flower)

Diana Vishneva in FLOW (Waters Flower)

Photo © & courtesy of Nina Alovert

Desmond Richardson & Diana Vishneva in Three Point Turn

Desmond Richardson & Diana Vishneva in Three Point Turn

Photo © & courtesy of Nina Alovert

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