Too many ballet stars embrace contemporary choreography only when they're on their last legs as classical dancers and want to prolong their careers. Not Diana Vishneva.
In performances on local stages by the Kirov Ballet, this 31-year-old Russian ballerina has often displayed her technical brilliance and interpretive daring in time-honored works from the imperial Russian and American neoclassical repertories. But Wednesday, she danced the premieres of three pieces that were created for her in a program titled "Beauty in Motion" (a label conferred on her by Vogue magazine) at the Orange County Performing Artscenter.
Ultimately it matters less that Vishneva and her seven guest dancers (all but one from the Kirov) rack up one triumph, one disaster and one qualified success than that she's staking her stardom on moving ballet and her own artistry into the future. She may be supreme in a tutu, but there's more than one way to dance a swan, as she definitively proves in Moses Pendleton's typically playful and dreamlike "F.L.O.W. (For Love of Women)."
A founder of the hyper-gymnastic Pilobolus Dance Theater and his own Momix company, Pendleton uses recordings by erO One, Lisa Gerrard and Deva Premal to accompany three kinds of movement theater.
Part 1 is a black light spectacle in which disembodied limbs form whimsical shapes -- including that swan. Part 2 finds Vishneva reclining on a mirrored platform, her constant shifts of position creating strange, seductive illusions. Part 3 places her in a silver gown and a large, circular headdress with strings of beads cascading nearly to the floor -- and as she whirls, the beads become a gleaming, ever-changing aura reflecting and magnifying her energy.
These are the only moments on the program qualifying as beauty in motion, for the other choreographers focus on more complex, nervy agendas. Pendleton alone has the gift of being simple and of being theatrical in a way that has nothing to do with bravura. He may not use Vishneva's classical prowess, but he enlists her imagination -- and the audience's. What's wrong with that?
"F.L.O.W." ideally belongs in a much smaller theater, as does Alexei Ratmansky's hopelessly confusing "Pierrot Lunaire," a setting of Arnold Schoenberg's groundbreaking song cycle in which Vishneva and three males initially appear identically dressed but keep changing roles and hats, reflecting the content of the text.
Partly because that text is in German and there are no translations or supertitles, the choreography never fuses with the music. It also never develops a life of its own. Forces led by mezzo Elena Sommer present the score diligently but can make no case for it against the restless stage action.
Currently artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, Ratmansky gives everyone floppy, antic clown moves derived from antique commedia dell'arte traditions, but he switches gears whenever he needs a shot of virtuosity. Then, suddenly, the dancers straighten up and execute the steps as if this were the Costa Mesa International Ballet Competition.
It's nice to see Igor Kolb's pristine pirouettes, but shouldn't Ratmansky ask him to dance in character? The 1962 "Pierrot Lunaire" by the late Glen Tetley that Rudolf Nureyev performed for many years was much more astute in its use of this music and also more unified choreographically.
Happily, Dwight Rhoden, co-founder and co-director of the Complexions company, sustains unity of style throughout "Three Point Turn," his turbulent, exciting sextet for Vishneva, Complexions guest Desmond Richardson and dancers previously used in the Pendleton and Ratmansky pieces.
Danced to live percussion by David Rozenblatt and Benny Koonyevsky, the piece initially seems a formula vehicle for three color-coded couples. But soon, very soon, Rhoden shatters the formula and all those comforting, hackneyed choreographic symmetries that Ratmansky relies on for something rawer and more genuinely contemporary. "Three Point Turn" is relentlessly overdriven, but at least it's going somewhere.
Whereas her artistry is often obliterated by Ratmansky, Vishneva glories in the unorthodox and often punishing Rhoden duets with the casually magnificent Richardson. And the fine supporting cast -- Mikhail Lobukhin with Ekaterina Ivannikova in blue, Alexander Sergeev with Maria Shevyakova in green -- helps make all the changing romantic entanglements forceful and satisfying.
'Diana Vishneva: Beauty in Motion'
Where: Orange County Performing Artscenter, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Price: $20 to $92
Contact: (714) 556-2787 and www.ocpac.org