The Russian dancer Maya Mikhailovna Plisetskaya (born 1925) epitomized the best of Soviet ballet.
The career of Maya Plisetskaya, the celebrated Soviet ballerina, choreographer, teacher, and director, spans almost 50 years. Her impulsive, dynamic, and expressive dancing in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s epitomized the highest qualities of the Soviet ballet. Recognized as one of the world's greatest ballerinas, she endowed her roles with unique individuality, combining the pure lyrical technique of the Russian classical heritage with the fire and magic of Soviet bravura. In 1990 she still danced in roles which, though less demanding physically, enabled her to demonstrate her persuasive acting skills.
Maya Mikhailovna Plisetskaya, prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi Ballet, was born on November 20, 1925, in Moscow into a Jewish theatrical dynasty. For over 70 years the Messerer family played a prominent part in the Soviet theater and films, as well as in the ballet world. Her mother, Rakhil Messerer, was a well-known silent-film actress. (Both of Maya's parents suffered during Stalin's purges in the 1930s: her mother was sent to a labor camp, and her father died.) Maya's brother, Azari, became a dancer; her Aunt Elizaveta was an actress in Moscow; and her cousin Boris was a distinguished set designer. Balletic influence came from her mother's sister and brother, Sulamith and Mikhail Messerer, both talented soloists and later distinguished teachers with the Bolshoi Ballet, who coached and encouraged the young Maya from earliest days.
As a child, Maya was always restless, constantly moving. When she was eight, her Aunt Sulamith took her to the Moscow Choreographic School, which produces most of the Bolshoi dancers. She requested that they admit Maya a year earlier than the usual entrance age because of the child's obvious talent and also because "at home, she just can't help dancing." Maya was accepted and began the hard and dedicated life of becoming a ballet dancer. For six full days a week she took ballet lessons along with her regular school education. Gangly and thin with bright red hair, the young Maya quickly grasped the technical difficulties of classical ballet, though not always willingly. Once she was expelled for violating the disciplinary demands of the class. Unabashed, she told her teacher that she didn't care and would "go and sell apples." But in less than two weeks she was back in class again. Her teacher for six years was the legendary Yelizaveta Gerdt, whose equally famous father, Pavel, taught Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina. Thus Plisetskaya is a direct link and continuation of the traditions of the Russian ballet. Gerdt called Plisetskaya her "little diamond" and lovingly polished and refined the young pupil's talent.
To be a student at the ballet school meant taking part in performances with the company at the Bolshoi Theatre. When she was 11, Plisetskaya appeared as the Bread Crumb Fairy in Asaf Messerer's production of "The Sleeping Beauty." A year later she danced the role of the cat in a children's ballet, "The Little Stork, " and in her seventh year at the school, her sparkling interpretation as leading dancer in the divertissement from "Paquita" aroused much interest. In addition to her commanding presence and clear, sharp footwork, she showed a remarkable high and seemingly effortless leap, an expressive movement which was to become one of her trademarks.
Upon graduation from the school in 1943, she was accepted immediately into the Bolshoi company, not as a member of the corps de ballet but as a soloist. For the role of Masha in "The Nutcracker, " Plisetskaya received the coaching of yet another legendary figure in the history of Russian ballet—Agrippina Vaganova, the director of the Leningrad ballet school whose methods of teaching were the basis at all Soviet ballet schools. Among Vaganova's pupils in Leningrad had been Galina Ulanova and Marina Semyonova. Vaganova encouraged the young ballerina to find and bring out her own individuality in each role—to make them her own.
The ensuing years saw Plisetskaya performing in all the classical roles, offering individual but convincing interpretations. She danced Raymonda, the dual role of Odette-Odile (Swan Lake), Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Myrthe (Giselle), Kitri (Don Quixote), Tsar-Maiden (The Little Hump-backed Horse), and, of course, "The Dying Swan" which Michel Fokine created for Anna Pavlova and which later was associated as a showcase for Plisetskaya's famous plasticity—the suppleness of her back and the remarkable pliability of her arms, which ripple with grace, seemingly boneless. In contemporary Soviet works she would attack the choreography with gusto, throwing herself into the dancing and character of the role with fiery passion. Her presence dominated the stage, encompassing it with large, expansive movements, high but light jumps, spinning turns, and dynamic force. She expressed great musicality in her dancing, and her presence guaranteed excitement.
One of her most famous—and favorite—contemporary roles was Carmen, in the ballet "Carmen-Suite" by Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso. The ballet gave full rein to her dramatic and artistic talent. She portrayed the young girl as a passionate, tempestuous, and sensual character. Bizet's famous score was arranged by Rodion Shchedrin, Plisetskaya's husband. The French choreographers Roland Petit and Maurice Bejart created "La Rose Malade" and "Isadora, " respectively, for her.
Another facet of Plisetskaya's talent was her choreography. Her ballets "Anna Karenina, " "The Seagull, " and "Lady with a Lapdog" are all based on Russian literature with music especially composed by Shchedrin and created as vehicles for her own star quality. She focused the spot light on the drama and psychological aspects of the stories rather than concentrating solely on the dancing. Plisetskaya won the top civilian award, the Lenin Prize, in 1964 and the French Pavlova Prize in 1962. She taught master classes in many cities, including New York, and was the artistic director of The National Ballet of Spain beginning of 1988.
After her departure from the Bolshoi Ballet, Plisetskaya continued to astound audiences world wide. She was accorded one of the highest tributes that a dancer could receive, an international ballet competition was named for her in 1994. Unlike similar competitions, participants in the "Maya" competition were allowed freedom in their choice of dance, with only one or two compulsory selections. The Second "Maya" International Ballet Competition ended in mild controversy when all the top honors went to Russian dancers. When most prima ballerinas would have long retired, Plisetskaya continued to perform on stage. In 1996, at age seventy, she received rave reviews for her remarkable performance of her signature "The Dying Swan" at New York City Hall. Her ability to work was phenomenal, and her talent remarkable. Plisetskaya was the "prima ballerina assoluta."
Further information on Maya Plisetskaya and her work can be found in Maya Plisetskaya. Essays on her work by Voznesensky, Vavra, Gayevsky, Komissarzhevsky, Lvov-Anokhin, Tyurin, Shuvalov (Moscow: 1976; in English) and in Maya Plisetskaya by Natalia Roslavleva (Moscow: 1956; in English). Era of Russian Ballet by Natalia Roslavleva (London: 1966) contains references to Plisetskaya's contribution to Russian ballet, as does The Russian Ballet: Past and Present by Alexander Demidov (London; in English). Russian Ballet on Tour, photographs by Alexander Orloff, text by Margaret Willis (1989), has a section devoted to Plisetskaya. Reviews and articles can be routinely found in the St. Petersburg Press.