Diana Vishneva’s career is similar to that of Sylvie Guillem. One of just a few ballet superstars in her generation, the 37-year-old Mariinsky principal defies definition. Doe-eyed and seemingly shy, she is capable of feral abandon on stage; a shining example of Vaganova training, she is also that rare Russian dancer who is at home in modern repertoire and unafraid to explore new territory.
And like Guillem, she has devoted much of her energy in recent years to works that she commissions, headlines and tours. The latest, On the Edge, is a collaboration with choreographers Jean-Christophe Maillot and Carolyn Carlson and had its European premiere in Monaco, where Maillot is celebrating his 20th anniversary at the helm of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo.
It is a short programme, but one that probes deeper than many similar projects. Maillot was on the jury that awarded Vishneva her first international award at the 1994 Prix de Lausanne, and unlike many he isn’t fazed by her preternatural physical abilities; instead, he brings out the diva in her with a hint of irony.
His Switch is a Huis clos for a trio of dancers, its format slightly reminiscent of Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson. There is a barre, too, but its owner is a lonely star in a fashionably minimalistic flat. Vishneva, in a silver lamé Karl Lagerfeld dress, makes the most of Maillot’s nods to the grand Russian manner, swooning and swaying on pointe with impossible hauteur.
The sleek, rippling choreography gives away a little too much too soon, but the choreographer shrewdly pits Vishneva against two of his own dancers as her servants. With her platinum cropped hair and straightforward manner, Bernice Coppieters Maillot’s longtime muse, goes head-to-head with Vishneva, mirroring her in a clash of styles.
Mutual jealousy or fascination seems to bring them together. Near the end, Vishneva strips to a simple leotard and drags the barre downstage, embracing it as the couple behind her make love. Her bare legs betray every effort, and as she hangs up her pointe shoes, you wonder who – between ballerina or woman – has overpowered whom.
Carlson’s Woman in a Room is a more conventional offering. Vishneva is seemingly trapped; early on, she looks longingly towards the room’s sole window, which shows a video of a rustling tree.
The piece is billed as a tribute to film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky, but it is closer in spirit to the world of Mats Ek. The choreography is matter-of-factly modern, and Vishneva imbues it with inner life, the diva entirely gone. Barefoot, in a dressing gown, she clings to a long table, her slender legs swaying and pedalling urgently in the air; melancholy moments alternate with sudden flights of fancy. She dons stilettos to strut playfully with a lemon, and the final scene sees her serve a plateful of them to the audience with a disarming smile.