NYC Review/Diana Vishneva: Beauty in Motion

This is Part II of my NYC dance reviews from the past weekend. Click here to read Part I, about the acrobatic show Traces.

Last Sunday, I had a chance to see the last performance of Diana Vishneva's much-anticipated one-woman show at City Center. Hailed as one of the finest ballerinas of our time, Vishneva projects the sort of stage presence and ur-femininity that is hard not to describe using adjectives like “radiant” and “lovely.” In Diana Vishneva: Beauty in Motion, she presented a polished exploration of—and paean to—the human body, clearly relishing the opportunity to break free of the classical idiom and test her own creativity (not to mention star power). It was a fascinating, if uneven, experiment.

Several other dance editors attended the performance I went to, and they were both baffled and put off by the first piece, Alexei Ratmansky’s poignant interpretation of Schoenberg’s turn-of-the-20th-century score, Pierrot Lunaire. I agree it’s not easy to like atonal music. Add to that a soprano performing in the loony-sounding “sprechstimme” style of half-singing, half-speaking, and you’d be forgiven for wanting to tune out.

That sense of disorientation, however, was key to Schoenberg’s dark vision of a world that, shadowed by the specter of World War I, was increasingly hard to make sense of. His Pierrot was a tragic figure—a hapless innocent at the mercy of society and a stand-in for the alienated artist out of sync with his times. In Ratmansky’s incarnation, Schoenberg’s archetypal “sad clown” was embodied by three male dancers, dressed in white with white-painted faces. Vishneva, wearing a mustard-colored tunic with her face also painted white, played Columbine, Pierrot’s love interest, as a sort of fin-de-siècle coquette.

Hats off to Ratmansky, who nailed the unsettling confusion and violence of the music with jarring shifts in tone. His three Pierrots were alternately fey and menacing, while Vishneva’s Columbine was at times coy and flirty, and at others, capricious and cruel. Their hammy expressions, often wildly inappropriate for the action at hand (big smiles after what looked like a choking death, for example), conveyed the chaos of a world in which feelings and actions have lost their connection.

Pierrot Lunaire was followed by a trio of mini-works by Moses Pendleton collectively titled F.L.O.W. (For Love of Women). Sure, Pendleton’s usual gimmickry was on display, but particularly in the middle part, Vishneva proved a one-of-a-kind collaborator. That segment provided the single most arresting sight I’ve seen on a dance stage this season: As the curtain went up to the strains of a seductive, synth-heavy score, a glistening expanse of white silk was slowly pulled away to stage right, revealing Vishneva, clad only in a nude-colored leotard, lying sideways on a mirrored ramp. Gasps could be heard from the audience.

For the next 20 minutes, she rolled up and down the ramp, twisting and contorting. One moment, she looked like a sculpture; the next, a grotesque insect, a Rorschach blot come to life. It was a terrific little gem that disoriented in order to reorient us to the power of what the body can do (and what a body!).

Dwight Rhoden concluded the evening with a piece called Three Point Turn. Unfortunately, it was both obnoxious and interminable (although I know others disagreed). At least for me, ennui set in almost immediately, as Vishneva and Desmond Richardson took the stage with two other couples, ostensibly to plumb the uncharted depths of “the sometimes complicated courses that romantic relationships take” (per Rhoden’s incoherent program synopsis). The four “back-up dancers” were clearly extraneous, unless they were supposed to distract from the emptiness of the choreography and ear-piercing music. Indeed, Vishneva and Richardson’s moments alone were the only times the piece ever came close to cohering.

Nonetheless, it was a rewarding performance, and an enjoyable weekend of dance overall. Stay tuned as we bring you more impromptu performance reviews from NYC and beyond!

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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