REVIEW: Diana Vishneva’s “On The Edge” at the London Coliseum
What does it mean to be a modern-day muse? If anyone knows, it’s Diana Vishneva, who stars in two of her own commissions in On the Edge, now running at the London Coliseum.
For starters, the muse of today is an artist in her own right — not merely a channel for some other artist’s vision. In the footsteps of Sylvie Guillem, the 38-year-old Vishneva is using her superstar status to feed her own artistic hunger, actively commissioning new works from both established and emerging choreographers.
The modern-day muse is also unafraid to be human, and this was especially apparent in On the Edge, a double bill featuring original works by Jean-Christophe Maillot, artistic director of Ballets de Monte-Carlo, and Finnish-American choreographer Carolyn Carlson. It proved to be a powerful curation: while the former focused on the tension between art and life, the latter celebrated the inexorable connection between them.
Maillot’s Switch entangles Vishneva, a cartoonishly glamorous and temperamental artiste, with a by-all-appearances “normal” couple portrayed by Monte-Carlo’s own Gaëtan Morlotti and Bernice Coppieters (incidentally, Maillot’s own muse). A program note suggests this work is from the artist’s perspective, and some parts clearly are: in relation to the couple, Vishneva alternately appears aloof, angry and anguished.
In a garish silver gown designed by Karl Lagerfeld, she is part goddess, demonstrating her commitment to her art with strange arm movements, plunging backbends and ear-grazing extensions. But stripped down to her practice clothes, she is lonely and vulnerable, dragging her ballet barre like a cross one moment, and clinging to it for dear life the next. As the couple makes love behind her, the barre is her partner in a sad pas de deux, and when she hangs her pointe shoes on it at the end, it’s unclear whether she’s choosing life or dance.
But it’s not all about Vishneva. In fact, Switch overall seemed to be less of a story about the artist, and more of a very French tale about a man (perhaps the choreographer) caught between two women, representing life and art. Clearly, the male character loves his wife, but finds the artist irresistible; early on, he even falls on top of her in bed, as if he couldn’t help it. Adding to the drama, his wife and the artist go head to head, although his wife eventually seems to accept the artist’s role in their lives.
Having seen several of Maillot’s works in the past — and spoken with him about his obsession with male-female relationships — I wasn’t surprised (even if I was disappointed) by his choice to portray the female characters as polarizing forces in a man’s life. Still, I was even more disappointed by the choreography, which, though typically sleek, was not especially musical or memorable. By squandering Vishneva’s dramatic talents on a tormented caricature, it also left me unmoved.
Woman in a Room
If Switch showcases the conflicts between art and life, then Carlson’s Woman in a Room makes a case for their mutual dependence — to much greater effect, in my opinion.
The work is set in a spartan room, with only a table and a window, through which we see a video-projected tree (Andrei Tarkovsky’s films are credited with inspiration, but the imagery brought to mind Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World”). Her upper body slumped over the table, Vishneva barely skims the ground as she circles and pedals her legs in the air, as if she wants to go somewhere, but feels stuck. Already, the story was more relatable.
Hand in hand with Giovanni Sollima’s string music, Vishneva progresses through a series of moods — ranging from melancholic, to sassy, to playful — with a different costume to match each one. From the table, she produces a knife, a platter and bushel of lemons. In a sassy mood, she slices into a lemon with diabolical glee. In a silly mood, she holds the lemon halves to her eyes and breasts, and then hands them out to the audience.
Carlson’s choreography rarely exploits Vishneva’s physical virtuosity, but makes ample use of her expressiveness simply by allowing her to be herself. In some ways, Woman in a Room is deeply personal, offering a view into the artist’s private world. But it is also universal, and that’s what ultimately made it compelling, for moods, joys and struggles are something we all deal with. It’s what we make of the proverbial lemons life hand us that defines us — as artists, or simply as human beings.
“Diana Vishneva: On the Edge” runs at the London Coliseum through April 18. For tickets and more information, click here.