A Touch of Class

July 24, 2007

A gentle “Shall we begin?” quietly signals the start of Azari Plissetski’s latest teaching adventure. Warm September light floods Studio A at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan as an elite group of invited dancers shuffles to attention at the barre. They are part of a workshop initiated by Mikhail Baryshnikov intended to foster a dialogue about classical ballet training. But many of the dancers have never heard of the soft-spoken gentleman whom Baryshnikov describes as one of the finest classical ballet teachers working today. In fact, Plissetski is a living link between the earliest years of the Russian school and some of the world’s most exciting classical dancers.

Plissetski’s relative obscurity is surprising given his family ties to several of ballet’s most visible and influential figures. Indeed, if there is royalty in the realm of classical ballet instruction, then 69-year-old, Bolshoi-trained Plissetski is its reigning monarch. His teachers, Nikolai Tarassov and Alexei Varlamov, were direct links to the traditions of Russia’s Imperial Ballet School, and Plissetsky’s uncle, Asaf Messerer (also one of Plissetski’s teachers), wrote Classes in Classical Ballet, a comprehensive study of ballet technique that is still in use today. Plissetski’s aunt was the indomitable Sulamith Messerer, who, in addition to burning her way through the Bolshoi’s most physically challenging roles, held the Soviet swimming record for the 100-meter crawl from 1927 to 1930. Alexander Plissetski, a brother, also danced with the Bolshoi. But the most brilliant jewel of this extraordinary family is Plissetski’s sister, the incomparable ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, whom Sulamith Messerer adopted as a child and coached to stardom.

Gentle-eyed and modest, Plissetski’s casual demeanor doesn’t suggest such an illustrious pedigree. Indeed, as we sit down to talk at BAC, Plissetski seems eager as a young boy to tell his story. “When you teach, you learn-the rule of my life,” he offers, and a bemused smile brightens his round face. It’s a disarming humility, and one all the more impressive as the facts roll out.

Rescued as a baby from the Soviet Gulag, Plissetski followed family tradition and entered the Bolshoi school at the age of 10. As a member of the 230-strong Bolshoi Ballet, he eventually established himself as a desirable partner and dancer of great elegance. In 1961 Alicia Alonso, prima ballerina and founder of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, selected him to be her primary partner, and Plissetski quickly accepted the chance to jump into the unknown.

“I’d never been outside Russia, so it was an adventure,” he says cheerfully. “Besides,” he adds a bit more soberly, “the contract was for just one year.” One year stretched to 10, and he toured the world, receiving international attention as Alonso’s partner. “Working with Alicia was a great experience for me-as a partner, as a dancer, as an interpreter,” says Plissetsky. He cites his years in Cuba as the most important of his life.

In the 1960s Fidel Castro was intent on building Cuba into a force to be reckoned with, and a world-class ballet company was part of the plan. Alonso, a personal friend of Castro’s, was charged with creating a ballet school in the Soviet style. She asked Plissetski to help her husband, Fernando Alonso, set it up. Plissetski had taught in Moscow as a young dancer, substituting occasionally for his uncle Asaf, but had never organized a school. The two men selected girls with suitable physique, but had to recruit boys from the local orphanage, as ballet didn’t fit the Cuban idea of machismo.

“We just asked them if they wanted to dance, and they said, yes, yes! We didn’t tell them it was ballet,” Plissetski recalls. “It was a university of experience. I formed new dancers, but I was formed by teaching them,” understating what must have been the Herculean task of molding raw recruits into danseur nobles. Plissetski credits Fernando Alonso with establishing the clean lines of the Cuban National Ballet School. But he is proud to acknowledge his own influence on the regal upper body carriage, port de bras, and potent infusion of “soul” that defines many of the exciting dancers emerging from Cuba today (although certainly the Cubans brought a measure of their own soul to the table).

When a knee injury ended his performing career, Plissetski returned to Moscow, but enjoyed considerable freedom for a Soviet citizen. He traveled as a guest instructor to France, Spain, Germany and Japan, teaching and choreographing. In 1991, he settled in Switzerland to take charge of the teaching program at Bejart Ballet Lausanne. He continues to guest teach at companies and schools all over the world (including return trips to Cuba), and believes exposure to so many different styles enriches his teaching. Once again, the eyes crease into smiles when he says, “It’s important not to get into the dogma of teaching.”

Although he admits his class is not radically different from that of his own teachers in Moscow, Plissetski is reluctant to identify with any one style or school. “It’s a matter of individual interpretation,” he says, “My class is an interpretation of what I learned as a student, and the process moves forward with each generation of teachers.” But Plissetski’s class is an education in the subtleties of such interpretation. The barre exercises retain the speed and complexity of the Russian school. For example the standing leg frequently changes within a combination, and several exercises include both en dehors, and en dedan turns, challenging the dancer to remain centered even before leaving the barre. However the upper body is softer and less mannered than is the Russian norm. Plissetski throws in an occasional stretch in parallel to curve the back, harkening to American modern dance. The center work is an amalgam of wicked turns plunked into the middle of an adagio in the Russian style, speedy neoclassical footwork from the U.S., the delicacy of the French school in small jumps across the floor, and grand jet├ęs with all the flamboyance of the Bolshoi.

In a conversation with Baryshnikov about what constitutes good ballet training, the two concur that awareness of a dancer’s individual needs is as important as tradition. “You have to know the psychology of the student,” says Baryshnikov. Plissetski nods in agreement, adding, “You need to have an open mind. There are certain rules, but there are a lot of exceptions. Sometimes there are more exceptions than there are rules!”

These are surprising comments from two men who’ve trained at different, and not always complementary, schools. Baryshnikov’s Vaganova School is traditionally regarded as creating a more refined dancer than that of the Bolshoi, but both men argue that such distinctions are irrelevant when judging a dancer’s quality. “Good technique is when you don’t see the technique,”says Plissetski. He describes how important it is for a dancer to feel comfortably “over their legs” so as to exude confidence. “You see whether a dancer enjoys the experience, or suffers.”

Plissetski believes that his job is to give students the physical tools to find confidence within themselves, and that trial and error is the best approach. He gestures excitedly, “That’s how the process is moving forward. I could make a parallel with doctors’ studies. They use the same textbooks, but some doctors’ patients are dying, and some continue to live.” He laughs at the difference in gravity of the two situations, but continues, “In our milieu, it’s a good parallel. If I see a patient die, I have to rethink my approach.”

Plissetski’s good-natured malleability is working its magic in the workshop class at BAC. The dancers are all bemused grins as Plissetsky pulls from his arsenal of center exercises. The combinations are tricky, even for these accomplished technicians (most are principals and soloists from American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet). But to the dancers’ apparent amazement, Plissetski’s barre has set them up perfectly. They feel “on their legs,” and able to execute any move he throws at them. There hasn’t been a lot of verbal explanation. At one point Plissetski simply touches a young woman’s shoulders-the shoulders drop, the neck lengthens, and a ballerina emerges. He considers time in class too precious to waste with a lot of talk. “The exercise, it speaks for itself, yes?”

After 40 years of teaching at some of the world’s premier ballet companies, Plissetski has friends and colleagues who are a veritable Who’s Who of ballet. In such company, he’d be forgiven for coasting on his family history, his performing years, or on his current reputation as a master teacher. Instead, he is the perpetual student who considers every class an opportunity for both student and teacher to absorb something new. “The most pleasurable thing,” he says, “is to see the eyes of the dancers really observing the information, and willingly taking it in.” Plissetski struggles to recall an Italian saying, but has to settle for the less lilting English. “Teachers exist to be consumed,” he says with a smile, as though having savored a fine dessert.

Lisa Rinehart, a former dancer with American Ballet Theatre, writes for
Dance Magazine and www.danceviewtimes.com.