Celebrated Prima Ballerina Diana Vishneva Returns to the Stage

Diana Vishneva is preparing a spectacle that will test the very boundaries of dance.

In a hushed corner or Majorelle, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Diana Vishneva’s husband apologized with heavy eyes. The prima ballerina was running late. This was not the casual hauteur one might expect from one of the world’s most celebrated dancers. No, she had to put her cranky newborn son, Rudolf Victor, down for a nap.

Then again, one could easily forgive Vishneva if she had played the part of the diva. When she bade farewell last year to the American Ballet Theater, at the age of 41, her loss was deeply felt. She received a 15-minute curtain call for her final performance in John Cranko’s Onegin—not surprising for a star who regularly sold out the Met.

Vishneva’s prowess pleased audiences’ desires for vaulting acrobatics, while her emotional sophistication charmed critics. In 14 years of splitting her time between New York and her native Russia, Vishneva embodied in one petite frame the imposing power of classical Russian ballet and its hold on the American imagination.

When Vishneva and her translator finally sat down over a pot of tea, the weary ballerina’s gaze betrayed as much fatigue as her husband’s. Yet she was quick to dismiss any notion that motherhood— and her departure from ABT—might impede her balletic ambitions.

“This is not the end of a career, but rather the end of a certain part of it,” she says. Though she retired from ABT, Vishneva still dances with the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, where she started her career. She continues to run the modern dance festival Context, which she founded in Moscow in 2013 as a forum where young Russian choreographers could experiment, and has since expanded it to St. Petersburg.

In Sleeping Beauty Dreams, Diana Vishneva’s live performance will be simultaneously interpreted digitally on a screen using motion-capture technology. Created by Tobias Gremmler for Sleeping Beauty Dreams

(She has recently started Context Pro, a dance and fitness studio open to the public in St. Petersburg.) She also found time to perform Ohad Naharin’s Boléro at the Paris Opera Ballet’s gala at the end of September, and, as if all that weren’t enough for one maternity leave, she is preparing for an ambitious experimental dance production, Sleeping Beauty Dreams, which will premiere during Art Basel Miami Beach, on December 7 and 8, before showing at New York’s Beacon Theater on December 14 and 15.

Such a second wind, at an age when most ballerinas have long hung up their slippers, should not be surprising for someone who’s clawed her way through the demanding world of Soviet/postSoviet ballet. (Russia is the country where creative differences once resulted in an acid attack on the Bolshoi’s artistic director.)

Vishneva was initially rejected by the legendary Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, incubator of both Balanchine and Baryshnikov—until her mother all but forced her on the academy’s stern director, Konstantin Sergeyev: “My mother grabbed the artistic director by the hand, which is just unthinkable, and said, ‘Please take a look at my daughter.”

He did, and Vishneva went on to receive her nation’s highest artistic honor, the People’s Artist of Russia. Vishneva seems to have inherited her mother’s tenacity. As she tried to convey what exactly this retelling of Sleeping Beauty was, she soon overwhelmed the translator with rapid-fire Russian and the passionate intellect that is her trademark as a performer. “The dancer in today’s world has to be a universal dancer,” and performances must incorporate different genres and media, Vishneva said.

“I started to think, ‘What would the theater of the future look like?’ and ‘What shows would be performed, would be shown in those theaters?’ ” Sleeping Beauty Dreams defies categorization. Choreographed by the world renowned Edward Clug with a score by Thijis de Vlieger of the EDM group Noisia, this 21st-century Gesamtkunstwerk reimagines Tchaikovsky’s ballet as a 95-minute synthesis of dance, motion capture, and electronica.

Vishneva performing La Bayadère with the Kirov Ballet company at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2007. Julie Lemberger/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The show rests largely on Vishneva’s shoulders, but with a CGI twist: Vishneva will dance in counterpoint with real-time digital avatars of herself projected onto a giant screen behind her. The avatars— Boschian creations by German designer Tobias Gremmler—will be mimicking, mirroring, and permuting Vishneva’s own motions.

They are meant to evoke the fears and other subconscious monsters that Princess Aurora battles during her 100 years of sleep. In short, Vishneva will be dancing with her own demons. “What we wanted to show is that this struggle, this evil and good, are kind of coexisting within us,” creative director Rem Hass, artist and filmmaker, later told me. “And the decisions you make as an individual, they not only influence your own life, but also the life of thoseclose to you, and also what’s going on in the entire world.”

Instead of quietly stepping off the stage, Vishneva is making her stage far larger, with the goal of bringing experimental dance to a much wider audience. She and her team are partnering with megapromoter Live Nation for the New York shows, with the goal of taking this brave new world of digital dance on the road. In Khass’s view, Sleeping Beauty Dreams represents the kind of wide-eyed leap into the unknown that only a master pushing past the peak of her career could make.

“As a prima ballerina…you’d rather prefer to stick to something where you have a sure success,” he said. “Diana’s quite different. She has been always open to experiment and always open to risk, and this one is a big experiment for her.” Reenergized by the act of explaining her new project to me, Vishneva likened obligations of motherhood to her duties as an artist: “I think it’s similar to pushing art forward because the performances need to provoke people’s feelings so that they get something in return, some new emotion, some new knowledge.”

Now she was seeing the world through four eyes, instead of just two, she said. And as she reaches for an uncharted professional future, that has made all the difference.