Maya Plisetskaya constitutes one of the greatest chapters in the history of ballet – and Bolshoi Ballet, in particular. Sadly, from now on, art will have to continue without her, as she recently left us. We would be remiss not to bid her farewell with an article.
The first years of her life
Maya Mikhaylovna Plisetskaya, as her full name was, was born on 20 November, 1925, in Moscow. She was a member of a Jewish family, with a prominent artistic vein, which explains her very particular talents in dance – and not only in dance. Her mother, Rachel Messerer-Plitseskaya, was a famous black-white silent film actress, while her brother, Alexander Plisetski, was a choreographer; her niece, Anna Plisetskaya, would also become a famous ballerina. Maya Plisetskaya lost both parents in 1938, as her left-wing father was executed, while her mother was arrested and sent to exile in Kazakhstan until 1941. For those three years, both Maya and her 7-month old brother were raised by their maternal uncle and aunt, Asaf and Sulamith Messerer, also famous dancers in the Bolshoi. The brutality of war and the fact that she was orphaned at such young an age led Plisetskaya to take refuge in Bolshoi very early. Therefore, quite soon and barely a teenager, Plisetskaya started studying under the great ballerina of Imperial School Elizaveta Gerdt and, at the age of 11, appeared in a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre for the first time. In 1943, at the age of 18, she graduated from the choreographic school and started working officially at the Bolshoi Ballet, where she performed until 1990.
From the beginning, it was evident that Maya Plisetskaya was a unique presence at the Bolshoi. Her fluid but, at the same time, dynamic movement, her flawless technique, her unique talent, her expressiveness – also her very looks, with her bright red hair – were the elements that made her stand out; therefore, almost immediately after graduation, she left the corps de ballet and became a soloist. Plisetskaya had the rare talent to dance equally well in adagio and allegro, an ability very rare in dancers. Yet, despite her exceptional abilities and talent, the Bolshoi management showed her anything but favor because of her Jewish descent; also, because of her explosive and “defiant” (for the standards of the time) personality. So, for the first 16 years that she was a member of the Bolshoi, Plisetskaya was not allowed to tour outside the country. However, wanting to have an international career, she rebelled and defied the orders she had been given. At the time, Russia used art, and classical ballet in particular, to gain diplomatic ground against the USA. It was the time of the Cold War and the Bolshoi Ballet was frequently used for diplomatic purposes, as foreign state leaders were taken to the performances. Plisetskaya was always trying to gain the respect and admiration of politicians and diplomats, in order to have the desired international career she so longed for. In 1956, she gave one of the powerful performances of her career, in Swan Lake; this was her passport abroad, while still being a member of the Bolshoi.
Her international performances
Within a few years, Maya Plisetskaya was recognized as an international superstar; she changed artistic standards concerning both dancing technique and dramatical expression. Plisetskaya is still considered an international legend in dance, world-renowned for her unique talent and magnificent expressiveness. She had a special iconoclastic style that became magnetic on stage. She was able to perform her jumps with almost masculine strength, while her expression was unsurpassed in both theatricality and drama.
In 1959, while touring the USA, Plisetskaya performed in Spartacus and made special appearances in the Paris Opera Ballet, in the Ballet National de Marseille and in the Ballet du XXe Siècle in Brussels. In 1962, when Galina Ulanova retired, Plisetskaya started yet another world tour, undertaking particularly difficult parts, which Ulanova had previously eschewed; among them were those of Raymonda, of the Black and the White Swan, of Kitri in Don Quixote and Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. Ulanova herself said that Plisetskaya’s “artistic temperament and bubbling optimism of youth reveal themselves in this ballet with full force”. When Rudolf Nureyev watched her debut as Kitri, he told her afterwards “I sobbed from happiness. You set the stage on fire.”
Special note should be done of her interpretation in Ravel’s Bolero, in 1975, where Plisetskaya danced a solo piece on an elevated round stage, surrounded and accompanied by 40 male dancers, mirroring her movements. The synchronization of her moves with the orchestra gave the impression that every part of her body was dancing – from her hair to her fingertips; this performance has been named one of the greatest of all times.
It is also worth noting Plisetskaya’s unique performance in The Dying Swan (a solo choreographed by Mikhail Fokine and inspired by Anna Pavlova, which represents the last moments of a swan’s life). According to press critics, Plisetskaya’s interpretation gave the part a new dimension and drove her audience to hysterics – on one occasion, she received a half-hour ovation and had to perform an encore.
During her career, Maya Plisetskaya performed very important and famous parts in her own unique way, thus leaving her mark in the field of ballet. In brief:
- The Stone Flower – Lavrovsky (1954)
- Spartacus – Moiseyev (1958)
- The Stone Flower – Grigorovich Moscow version (1959)
- The Sleeping Beauty (Aurora) – Grigorovich (1963)
- The Legend of Love – Grigorovich Moscow version (1965)
- Carmen Suite – Alberto Alonso (1967)
- La Rose Malade – Petit, Paris (1973)
- Isadora – Bejart, Monte Carlo (1976)
- Maria Estuardo – Granero, Madrid (1988)
- El Renedero – Lopez, Buenos Aires (1990)
Performances and choreographies
Ιn 1960, Maya Plisetskaya was proclaimed Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Bolshoi Theatre, right after the retirement of Galina Ulanova from the stage. Since then, great choreographers created ballets for her; among them were Yuri Grigorovich, Roland Petit, Alberto Alonso, Maurice Béjart, as well as her husband, Rodion Shchedrin. Her own first attempt at choreography was Anna Karenina, in 1968 (which was also made into a movie in 1974).
In 1984, Plisetskaya became the artistic director of the Rome Opera Ballet; while from 1987 to 1989 she assumed the same position in the Spanish National Ballet of Madrid. In 1987, she was still teaching master classes in New York (David Howard Dance Center), despite the fact that she was 61 at the time. The same year, she performed with Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov for the opening night of the season at the Martha Graham Dance Company (also in New York).
At the age of 65, Plisetskaya retired as a soloist from the Bolshoi – but not from the artistic and dancing life. On her 70th birthday, she debuted in Maurice Béjart’s piece choreographed for her, entitled Ave Maya. In 1996, she was named President of the Imperial Russian Ballet.
Awards and Honors
In her long life, Maya Plisetskaya was honored countless times for her unique dancing talent, her performances and her overall contribution to art. Very briefly:
- From the Russian Government: Order of Merit for the Fatherland (1st class – 2005, 2nd class – 2000, 3rd class – 1995, 4th class – 2010), for outstanding contribution to the choreographic art.
- From the Soviet Union: Order of Lenin (1967, 1976, 1985), Lenin Prize (1964), People’s Artist (1956, 1959).
Other Awards and Honors:
- Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (France – 1984)
- Gold Medal Gloria Artis (Poland – 2008)
- Order of the Rising Sun, 3rd class (Japan – 2011)
- First Prize (Budapest International Competition – 1949)
- Anna Pavlova Prize (Paris Academy of Dance – 1962)
- Docteur de Sorbonne (France – 1985)
- Gold Medal of Fine Arts of Spain (Spain – 1991)
- Imperial Prize of Japan (Japan – 2006)
Maya Plisetskaya died in Munich, Germany, on 2 May 2015, from a heart attack. According to her last will and testament she was to be cremated and after the death of her widower (who is also to be cremated), their ashes are to be combined and spread over Russia. Her country and the entire world bid farewell to the beloved swan as Plisetskaya’s death indubitably marks the end of an era for modern ballet.