The myth of Diana

An extraordinary Russian ballerina strikes out on her own.

POOL PARTY Vishneva floats on her back in F.L.O.W.

POOL PARTY Vishneva floats on her back in F.L.O.W. Photograph: Armen Danilian

Diana Vishneva is a wondrous creature whose captivating beauty never feels frozen in a static, flawless state, but is ever-changing—full of heat or ice, and packaged in a body that the choreographer Moses Pendleton notes, “moves like liquid milk.” In the showcase “Beauty in Motion,” which opens at City Center on February 21, the ballerina’s delicate grandeur will be on display three times over in a program featuring new dances by Pendleton, who also directs the group Momix; Dwight Rhoden of Complexions Dance Company; and Alexei Ratmansky, the current director of the Bolshoi Ballet, who may become New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer.

For Vishneva, born in St. Petersburg and a principal dancer with both the Kirov Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, the prospect of starring in such a program—two years in the making—is something akin to freedom. “When you’re dancing with different companies, and you dance different versions of well-known ballets—I mean, I know I like what I’m doing, but it was really important to find something different,” she says through a translator. “Not only for myself, but also for my audience. If you ask me why I am doing this, probably it is another question: How many times can I do another Giselle? I still will do it, of course, but it’s probably not the end of the world if I don’t.”

As Vishneva laughs, her face, scrubbed free of makeup, looks at least a decade younger than its 31 years. “To come to ‘beauty in motion,’ you have to pass some stumps,” she continues. “When you do something new, it’s a very difficult process because you achieve a level, and some people call it star level. And you would like everything to be on the same level, but it’s like going to ballet class. You are not there because you’re a star. It’s you as a student, and you’re taking a class. And if you’re not ready for it, you never will progress in your career. This is from my childhood, actually.” When pressed, Vishneva only laughs again, shakes her head and says, “A very sad story. Let’s talk about something happy.”

The program places Vishneva in very different contexts. In Rhoden’s Three Point Turn, set to an electronic-and-percussion score by David Rozenblatt, she performs a duet with Desmond Richardson; Pendleton’s F.L.O.W. (For the Love of Women) highlights the dancer in three miniature portraits, loosely inspired by Picasso, Caravaggio and Erté; and Ratmansky’s Pierrot Lunaire places her onstage with three Kirov men in an interpretation of Arnold Schoenberg’s song cycle.

For Ratmansky, the atonal music posed an intriguing challenge for both Vishneva and himself. “This piece has incredible mood,” he explains. “It’s from 1912, and this time is unique for me—it has connections with Russian Symbolism and Diaghilev and, of course, it’s very decadent. And also there is Diana’s talent—she is like material for anything. She could do a man, a woman, an animal, air, water—and I thought that was a quality I could use in this piece.”Ratmansky, who has spoken of Vishneva’s ability to portray troubled figures, sees the dancer as a singular artist. “She’s not a happy, happy person,” he says. “I mean it’s not like she is crying all the time of course, but she is deep and she struggles for perfection, which makes her very concentrated on the inner side of herself. I also like that she is a classicist of the highest caliber and that she is very good at modern. She can really move, which is very rare among Russian dancers.”

In F.L.O.W., Vishneva first performs in black light (Pendleton describes the theme as a swan’s nightmare), followed by a duet involving a mirror, in which she dances with herself. “She has the ability to arch up in the most beautiful way, to be suspended like a cup,” the choreographer says. “So it’s very sculptural and not just a doubling of her image. We have discovered a lot of strange imagery that is not just her dancing with her double—it becomes another character. She gives birth to a faun—it’s very transformative and metamorphic.” In the final section, Vishneva falls into an imaginary lake. “I think she’s really being seen in a way that people haven’t seen her before,” Pendleton says. “She doesn’t really have to do this, but she’s a very curious girl. We’re going to piss off some people who won’t want to see her messing around with modern stuff, but she’s not bothered by that.”

The only time Pendleton experienced what he refers to as “a face-off” with Vishneva was during the creation of the first section of his piece, in which her limbs unfurl in the black light and her face is hidden. “She just didn’t get what that was about,” he recalls. “I said, ‘If you are the artist I think you are, you could make people see that in your arm there is the feather of hope.’ ”

At the time, they were working at his studio, a converted barn in rustic Connecticut. “Once she came in the living room, and I gave her some coffee and built a fire, she started looking in the mirror and playing with her arms, making shapes and getting her to see, yes, maybe there is something there,” Pendleton recalls. “And the funny thing about it is that she is a real comedienne. I think the first section shows off another talent. She’s become a black-light junkie. She started to make things that were completely her own inventions, and now she can’t get enough of it.”

“Beauty in Motion” is at City Center Feb 21–24.