Plisetskaya in 2011
|Born||Maya Mikhaylovna Plisetskaya
20 November 1925 (age 88)
Moscow, Soviet Union
|Occupation||ballerina, dancer, choreographer, ballet director, actress|
|Former groups||Bolshoi Ballet|
|The Plisetskaya-Shchedrin Foundation|
Maya Mikhaylovna Plisetskaya (Russian: Ма́йя Миха́йловна Плисе́цкая; born 20 November 1925) is a Russian ballet dancer, choreographer, ballet director, and actress, frequently cited as one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century. Plisetskaya danced during the Soviet era at the same time as the great Galina Ulanova, and took over from her as prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi in 1960.
Maya Plisetskaya was born on November 20, 1925, in Vilnius, Lithuania, into a prominent Jewish family, most of whom were involved in the theater or film. Her mother, Rachel Messerer-Plisetskaya (aka Ra Messerer), was a silent-film actress. One of her uncles was dancer Asaf Messerer and an aunt was Bolshoi ballerina Sulamith Messerer. Her father, Mikhail Plisetski (Misha), was an engineer and mine director, and not involved in the arts, although he was a fan of ballet.
In 1938, her father was arrested and later executed during the Stalinist purges. According to ballet scholar Jennifer Homans, her father was a committed Communist, and "proclaimed a national hero for his work on behalf of the Soviet coal industry." Soviet leader Vyacheslav Molotov presented him with one of the Soviet Union's first manufactured cars. "He was also, however, a Jew," notes Homans. Her mother was arrested soon after and, with Maya's seven-month old baby brother, sent to a labor camp (Gulag) in Kazakhstan for the next three years. Plisetskaya was taken in by her maternal aunt, ballerina Sulamith Messerer, until her mother was released in 1941.
During the years without her parents, and barely a teenager, Plisetskaya "faced terror, war, and dislocation," writes Homans. As a result, “Maya took refuge in ballet and the Bolshoi Theater.” She went to school in Spitzbergen, and then studied under the great ballerina of imperial school, Elizaveta Gerdt. She first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre when she was eleven. In 1943, at the age of eighteen, she graduated from the choreographic school and joined the Bolshoi Ballet, where she would perform until 1990.
Performing in the Soviet Union
From the beginning, Maya Plisetskaya was a different kind of ballerina. She spent a very short time in the corps de ballet after graduation and was quickly named a soloist. Her bright red hair and striking looks made her a glamorous figure on and off the stage. “She was a remarkably fluid dancer but also a very powerful one,” according to The Oxford Dictionary of Dance. “The robust theatricality and passion she brought to her roles made her an ideal Soviet ballerina.” Her interpretation of The Dying Swan, a short showcase piece made famous by Anna Pavlova, became her calling card. Plisetskaya was known for the height of her jumps, her extremely flexible back, the technical strength of her dancing, and her charisma. She excelled both in adagio and allegro, which is very unusual in dancers.
Despite her acclaim, she was not treated well by the Bolshoi management. She was Jewish in an climate of Soviet anti-Zionist campaigns, her family had been purged during the Stalinist era and her personality was defiant, so she was not allowed to tour outside the country for sixteen years after joining the Bolshoi.
Plisetskaya’s dancing was used to project the Soviet Union’s achievements during the Cold War period with United States. According to Soviet historian Christina Ezrahi. “In a quest for cultural legitimacy, the Soviet ballet was shown off to foreign leaders and nations.” Plisetskaya herself recalls that “they were all taken to the ballet. And almost always, Swan Lake . . . Khrushchev was always with the high guests in the loge.”
However, adds Ezrahi, “the intrinsic paranoia of the Soviet regime made it ban Plisetskaya, one of the most celebrated dancers, from the Bolshoi Ballet’s first major international tour,” as she was considered to be “politically suspect,” and was categorized as “non-exportable.” Homans explains that in 1948 the Zhdanov Doctrine took effect, and with her family history, along with being Jewish, she became a "natural target . . . publicly humiliated and excoriated for not attending political meetings." Dancing roles were continually denied her. As a result, for the next sixteen years she could tour only within the Soviet bloc or countries such as India. “She would become a provincial artist, consigned to grimy, unrewarding bus tours, exclusively for local consumption,” states Homans.
Nevertheless, in 1958 she was honoured with the title of the People's Artist of the USSR, and that same year married the young composer Rodion Shchedrin, in whose subsequent fame she later shared. However, most wanting to dance internationally, she chose to rebel and defy Soviet expectations: to attract the attention of some of the country’s leaders, she gave one of the most powerful performances of her career, in Swan Lake, for her 1956 concert in Moscow. Homans describes that extraordinary performance:
We can feel the steely contempt and defiance taking hold of her dancing. When the curtain came down on the first act, the crowd exploded. KGB toughs muffled the audience’s applauding hands and dragged people out of the theater kicking, screaming, and scratching. By the end of the evening the government thugs had retreated, unable (or unwilling) to contain the public enthusiasm. Plisetskaya had won.
Soviet leader Khrushchev was still concerned, writes historian David Caute, that “her defection would have been useful for the West as anti-Soviet propaganda.” He received a letter from her, however, “a long and forthright expression of her patriotism and her indignation that it should be doubted.” The travel ban was finally lifted in 1959, on Khrushchev’s personal intercession, as it became clear to him that striking Plisetskaya from the Bolshoi's participants could have serious consequences for the tour’s success. In his memoirs, Khrushchev writes that Plisetskaya “was not only the best ballerina in the Soviet Union, but the best in the world.” Now able to travel the world as a member of the Bolshoi, her skill as a dancer would eventually change the world of ballet, setting a higher standard for ballerinas both in terms of technical brilliance and dramatic presence.
Khrushchev allowed her to participate in the Bolshoi tour in New York and he was immensely satisfied upon reading the reviews of her performances. “He embraced her upon her return: ‘Good girl, coming back. Not making me look like a fool. You didn’t let me down.’”
Within a few years of touring internationally with the Bolshoi, she was considered “an international superstar” and was a continuous “box office hit around the world,” writes Homans.” The Soviet Union treated her as a favored cultural emissary, as “the dancer who did not defect.” Russian dance historian Tim Scholl points out that although she toured extensively during the same years that other dancers defected, including Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, “Plisetskaya always returned to Russia.”:xiii
Explaining why she did not defect, she explains that for her generation and her family in particular, defecting was a moral issue: “He who runs to the enemy’s side is a traitor.” She once asked her mother why their family didn’t leave the Soviet Union when they had the chance, at that time living in Norway. Her mother told her that her father “would have abandoned me with the children instantly” for even asking. “Misha would never have been a traitor.”:239
Although she lacked the first-rate training and coaching of her contemporaries, Plisetskaya “compensated” by “developing an individual, iconoclastic style that capitalized on her electrifying stage presence,” writes historian Tim Scholl, adding that it amounted to a “daring rarely seen on ballet stages today, and a jump of almost masculine power.”
Her very personal style was angular, dramatic, and theatrical, exploiting the gifts that everyone in her mother’s family seemed to possess. . . . Those who saw Plisetskaya’s first performances in the West still speak of her ability to wrap the theater in her gaze, to convey powerful emotions in terse gestures.:xii
Among her most notable performances was a 1975 free-form dance, in a modern style, set to Ravel’s Boléro. In it, she dances a solo piece on an elevated round stage, surrounded and accompanied by 40 male dancers. One reviewer writes, “Words cannot compare to the majesty and raw beauty of Plisetskaya’s performance:”
What makes the piece so compelling is that although Plisetskaya may be accompanied by dozens of other dancers mirroring her movement, the first and only focus is on the prima ballerina herself. Her continual rocking and swaying at certain points, rhythmically timed to the syncopation of the orchestra, create a mesmerizing effect that demonstrated an absolute control over every nuance of her body, from the smallest toe to her fingertips, to the top of her head.
Plisetskaya created a number of leading roles, including ones in Lavrovsky’s Stone Flower (1954), Moiseyev’s Spartacus (1958), Grigorovich’s Moscow version of The Stone Flower (1959), Aurora in Grigorovich’s staging The Sleeping Beauty (1963), Grigorovich’s Moscow version of The Legend of Love (19650, the title role in Alberto Alonso’s Carmen Suite (1967), Petit’s La Rose malade (Paris, 1973), Bejart’s Isadora (Monte Carlo, 1976) and his Moscow staging of Leda(1979), Granero’s Maria Estuardo (madrid, 1988), and Lopez’s El Renedero (Buenos Aires, 1990).
After performing in Spartacus during her 1959 U.S. debut tour, Life magazine, in their issue focused on the Bolshoi, rated her second only to Galina Ulanova. According to Homans, Spartacus became a significant ballet for the Bolshoi, with one critic describing their “rage to perform,” personified by Plisetskaya as ballerina, “that defined the Bolshoi.” During her travels she also appeared as guest artist with the Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet National de Marseilles, and Ballet of the 20th Century in Brussels.
In 1962, a few years following Ulanova’s retirement, Plisetskaya embarked on another three-month world tour. As a performer, notes Homans, she “excelled in the hard-edged, technically demanding roles that Ulanova eschewed, including Raymonda, the black swan in Swan Lake, and Kitri in Don Quixote. She notes that in her performances, Plisetskaya “was unpretentious, refreshing, direct. She did not hold back.”
During one performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, one writer states that she received a half-hour ovation. She met choreographer Jerome Robbins, who had recently worked on the Broadway play, West Side Story, with Robbins telling her that ever since he first saw her perform in her previous tour, he “wanted to create a ballet especially for her.”
Plisetskaya's most acclaimed roles included Odette-Odile in Swan Lake (1947) and Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (1961). Her dancing partner in Swan Lake states that for twenty years, he and Plisetskaya shared the world stage with that ballet, with her performance consistently producing "the most powerful impression on the audience."
In 1967, she performed as “Carmen” in the Carmen Suite, choreographed specifically for her by Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso. The music was re-scored from Bizet’s original by her husband, Rodion Shchedrin, and its themes were re-worked into a “modernist and almost abstract narrative.” Dancer Olympia Dowd, who performed alongside her, writes that Plisetskaya’s “dramatic portrayal of Carmen, reportedly her favorite role, helped confirm her as a legend and the ballet soon took its place as a landmark in the Bolshoi repertoire."
Acting and choreography
After Galina Ulanova left the stage in 1960, Maya Plisetskaya was proclaimed the prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi Theatre. In 1971, her husband Shchedrin wrote a ballet on the same subject, where she would play the leading role. Anna Karenina was also her first attempt at choreography. Other choreographers who created ballets for her include Yury Grigorovich, Roland Petit, Alberto Alonso, and Maurice Béjart with "Isadora". She crated The Seagull and Lady with a Lapdog. She starred in the 1961 film of The Humpbacked Horse, and also appeared as a straight actress in several films, including the Soviet version of Anna Karenina (1968). Her own ballet of the same name was filmed in 1974.
During one of her tours in the U.S. in 1987, she gave master classes at the David Howard Dance Center. A review in New York magazine notes that although she was 61 when giving the classes, “she displayed the suppleness and power of a performer in her physical prime.” In October, 1987, she performed with Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov for the opening night of the season with the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York.
Her husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin, wrote the score to a number of her ballets, including Anna Karenina, The Sea Gull, Carmen, and Lady with a Small Dog. In the 1980s, he was considered the successor to Shostakovich, and became the Soviet Union’s leading composer.
In the 1980s, Plisetskaya and Shchedrin spent much time abroad, where she worked as the artistic director of the Rome Opera Ballet in 1984–5, then the Spanish National Ballet of Madrid from 1987–9. At the age of 65, she finally retired from the Bolshoi as a soloist. On her 70th birthday, she debuted in Maurice Béjart's piece choreographed for her and entitled "Ave Maya". Since 1994, she has been presiding over the annual international ballet competitions called Maya. In 1996 she was named President of the Imperial Russian Ballet.
She was ballet director of the Rome Opera (1983-1984), and artistic director of Ballet del Teatro Lirico Nacional in Madrid (1987-1990). In 1996 she danced the Dying Swan, her signature role, at a gala in her honor in St. Petersburg.
On her 80th birthday, the Financial Times summed up current opinion about Maya in the following words: "She was, and still is, a star, ballet's monstre sacre, the final statement about theatrical glamour, a flaring, flaming beacon in a world of dimly twinkling talents, a beauty in the world of prettiness." The following year, Emperor Akihito of Japan presented to her the Praemium Imperiale, informally considered a Nobel Prize for Art.
Plisetskaya's tour manager, Maxim Gershunoff, who also helped promote the Soviet/American Cultural Exchange Program, describes her as “not only a great artist, but also very realistic and earthy . . . . with a very open and honest outlook on life.”
During her tours abroad she became friends with a number of other theater and music artists, including composer and pianist Leonard Bernstein, with whom she remained good friends until his death. Pianist Arthur Rubenstein, another friend, was able to converse with her in in Russian. She visited him after his concert performance in Russia.:202 Novelist John Steinbeck was her and her husband's guest at their home in Moscow. She remembers him telling her, after hearing about her career hardships, that the backstage side of ballet could make for a “most interesting novel.”:203
In 1962, the Bolshoi was invited to perform at the White House by president John F. Kennedy, and she recalls that first lady Jacqueline Kennedy greeted her by saying “You’re just like Anna Karenina.”:222
While in France in 1965, she was invited to the home of Russian artist Marc Chagall and his wife. Chagall had moved to France to study art in 1910. He asked her if she wouldn't mind creating some ballet poses to help him with his current project, a mural for the new Metropolitan Opera House in New York, which would show various images representing the arts. She danced and posed in various positions as he sketched, and her images were used on the mural, “at the top left corner, a colorful flock of ballerinas,” she points out.:250
Plisetskaya became friends with a number of celebrities and notable politicians who greatly admired and followed her work. She met Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, then living in the U.S., after a performance of Anna Karenina Bergman told her that both their photographs, taken by noted photographer Richard Avedon, appeared on the same page in Vogue magazine. Bergman suggested she “flee Communism,” recalls Plisetskaya, telling her “I will help you.”:222
Actress Shirley MacLaine, once held a party for her and the other members of the Bolshoi. She remembered seeing her perform in Argentina when Plisetskaya was sixty-five, and writes “how humiliating it was that Plisetskaya had to dance on a vaudeville stage in South America to make ends meet.” Dancer Daniel Nagrin notes that Plisetskaya was among those dancers who “went on to perform to the joy of audiences everywhere while simultaneously defying the myth of early retirement.”
MacLaine’s brother, actor Warren Beatty, also got to know Plisetskaya during that period, and is said to have been inspired by their friendship, which led him to write and produce his 1981 film Reds, about the Russian Revolution. He directed the film and costarred with Diane Keaton. He first met Plisetskaya at a reception in Beverly Hills, and, notes Beatty's biographer Peter Biskind, “he was smitten” by her “classic dancer’s” beauty.
She also became friends with film star Natalie Wood and her sister, actress Lana Wood. Wood, whose parents immigrated from Russia, greatly admired Plisetskaya, and once had an expensive custom wig made for her to use in the Spartacus ballet. They enjoyed socializing together on Wood’s yacht.
Friendship with Robert F. Kennedy
U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother to president John F. Kennedy, befriended Plisetskaya, with whom he coincidentally shared the same birth date. She was invited to gatherings with Kennedy and his family at their estate on Cape Cod in 1962. They later named their sailboat “Maya”, in her honor.
As the Cuban Missile Crisis had ended a few weeks earlier, at the end of October, 1962, U.S. and Soviet relations were at a low point. Diplomats of both countries considered her friendship with Kennedy to be a great benefit to warmer relations, after weeks of worrisome military confrontation. Years later, when they met in 1968, he was then campaigning for the presidency, and diplomats again suggested that their friendship would continue to help relations between the two countries. Plisetskaya summarizes Soviet thoughts on the matter:
Maya Plisetskaya should bring the candidate presents worthy of the great moment. Stun the future president with Russian generosity to continue and deepen contacts and friendship.:265
Of their friendship, Plisetskaya writes in her autobiography:
With me Robert Kennedy was romantic, elevated, noble, and completely pure. No seductions, no passes.:265
Robert Kennedy was assassinated just days before he was to see Plisetskaya again in New York. Gershunoff, Plisetskaya's manager at the time, recalls that on the day of the funeral, most of the theaters and concert halls in New York City went “dark,” closed in mourning and respect. The Bolshoi likewise planned to cancel their performance, but they decided instead to do a different ballet than planned, one dedicated to Kennedy. Gershunoff describes that evening:
The most appropriate way to open such an evening would be for the great Plisetskaya to perform The Dying Swan, which normally would close an evening’s program to thunderous applause with stamping feet, and clamors for an encore. . . . This assignment created an emotional burden for Maya. She really did not want to dance that work that night. . . I thought it was best for me to remain backstage in the wings. That turned out to be one of the most poignant moments I have ever experienced. Replacing the usual thunderous audience applause at at the conclusion, there was complete silence betokening the feelings of a mourning nation in the packed, cavernous Metropolitan Opera House. Maya came off the stage in tears, looked at me, raised her beautiful arms and looked upward. Then disappeared into her dressing room.
Awards and honors
Maya Plisetskaya has been honored on numerous occasions for her skills:
- First prize, Budapest International Competition (1949)
- Anna Pavlova Prize, Paris Academy of Dance (1962)
- Lenin Prize (1964)
- Hero of Socialist Labour (1985)
- Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur (France, 1986)
- Triumph Prize, 2000.
- Praemium Imperiale (Japan, 2006)
- Order of Merit for the Fatherland;
- 1st class (20 November 2005) – for outstanding contribution to the development of domestic and international choreographic art, many years of creative activity
- 2nd class (18 November 2000) – for outstanding contribution to the development of choreographic art
- 3rd class (21 November 1995) – for outstanding contributions to national culture and a significant contribution to contemporary choreographic art
- 4th class (9 November 2010) – for outstanding contribution to the development of national culture and choreography, many years of creative activity
- Three Orders of Lenin (1967, 1976, 1985)
- Honoured Artist of the RSFSR (1951)
- People's Artist of RSFSR (1956)
- People's Artist of USSR (1959)
- Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (France, 1984)
- Great Commander's Cross of the Order for Merits to Lithuania (2003)
- Commander of the Order of Isabella the Catholic (Spain)
- Commander of the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas
- Order of the Rising Sun, 3rd class (Japan, 2011)
- Premium "Russian National Olympus" (2000)
- Prince of Asturias Award (2005, Spain)
- "Maya Plisetskaya"
- Miller, Jack (1984). Jews in Soviet Culture. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0-87855-495-5.
- Popovich, Irina. "Maya Plisetskaya: A Balletic Lethal Weapon", The Russia Journal, issue 10, May 1999
- Homans, Jennifer. Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, Random House (2010) pp. 383-386
- Eaton, Katherine Bliss (2004). Daily Life in the Soviet Union. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0-313-31628-7.
- They were sent to ALZHIR camp, a Russian acronym for the Akmolinskii Camp for Wives of Traitors of the Motherland, "enemies of the people"  near Akmolinsk
- Plisetskaya, Maya (2001). I, Maya Plisetskaya. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-08857-4.
- Craine, Debra. And Mackrell, Judith. The Oxford Dictionary of Dance, Oxford Univ. Press (2010) pp. 352-353
- Ezrahi, Christina. Swans of the Kremlin, Univ. Of Pittsburgh Press (2012) p. 68, 142
- Caute, David. The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War, Oxford Univ. Press (2003) p. 489
- Taubman, William; Khrushchev, Sergeĭ; Gleason, Abbott; Gehrenbeck, David; Kane, Eileen; Bashenko, Alla (2000). Nikita Khrushchev. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-07635-5.
- “Master Class: Maya Plisetskaya’s ‘Bolero’”, Oct. 25, 2011
- Life magazine, Feb. 23, 1959
- "Plisetskaya-AVE MAYA-documentary film", translated from Russian
- Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation, Routledge (2006) p. 164
- Dowd, Olympia. A Young Dancer's Apprenticeship: On Tour with the Moscow City Ballet, Twenty-first Century Books (2003) p. 71
- Tolstoy, Leo (2003). Anna Karenina. Mandelker, Amy; Garnett, Constance. Spark Educational Publishing. ISBN 1-59308-027-1.
- New York magazine, June 22, 1987, p. 65
- New York magazine, Sept. 21, 1987, p. 100
- New York magazine, March 28, 1988, p. 99
- Sleeman, Elizabeth (2001). The International Who's Who of Women (3rd edition ed.). Routledge. ISBN 1-85743-122-7.
- Crisp, Clement (18 November 2005). "Mayan goddess". Financial Times. Retrieved 25 June 2008.
- Gershunoff, Maxim. It's Not All Song and Dance: A Life Behind the Scenes in the Performing Arts, Hal Leonard Corp. (2005) pp. 61,65,74
- MacLaine, Shirley. Out on a Leash: Exploring the Nature of Reality and Love, Simon & Schuster (2003) p. 126
- Nagrin, Daniel. How to Dance Forever: Surviving Against the Odds, HarperCollins (1988) p. 15
- Biskind, Peter. Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, Simon & Schuster (2010) p. 90
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Maya Plisetskaya.|
- "Legendary performances: Maya Plisetskaya", documentary biography, 1 hr. 20 min.
- "Maya Plisetskaya. "Lives of Remarkable People", documentary film, 30 minutes
- "Maya Plisetskaya - Bolero, by Ravel", video, 20 min.
- The Washington Post's tribute to Maya's 80th birthday
- Video: Excerpt from Maya's "Dance Studies"
- Stellar ballerina's birthday 20 November 2010
- The Ballerina Gallery – Maya Plisetskaya
- le Gala des étoiles – Maya Plisetskaya
- A national treasure – Maya Plisetskaya