Maya Plisetskaya (1925–2015)

May 10, 2015



Plisetskaya with Bolshoi Ballet in their only West Coast performance in Portland


If you saw her dance once, you never forgot her. In Don Quixote, her rabble-rousing Kitri flirted and leapt with outsized exuberance. In Swan Lake, her Odette luxuriated in the music and her Odile glittered with triumph. In Lavrovsky’s Walpurgis Night she hurled herself across the stage, landing in her partner’s arms in a languid arch (see a clip of it here.)


The legendary Bolshoi dancer died of a heart attack on May 2. She was one of the few Soviet ballerinas who gained worldwide fame without defecting. She was so iconic that she became the muse of fashion designers Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent. On his Facebook page, Mikhail Baryshnikov wrote, “She always will be the divine inspiration to us all.”


The ferocity of her dancing brought in a new era that kicked the Bolshoi spirit of BIG up a notch. She didn’t always point her feet fully or turn out well, but she had a fire in her belly. In every movement her intention was instantly legible, often with her chin leading the way. Not preoccupied with correct placement, her sensuality filled the stage. There was something bacchanalian, almost illicit, in the pleasure she took in performing. In 1959 John Martin wrote in The New York Times, “She drenches the stage with movement much as a hand on the switchboard drenches it with light…No wonder audiences scream and yell with delight whenever she appears.”



Part of her fire came from rage. Rage at Stalin’s purges that killed her father and exiled her mother. Rage that even after those tragedies her Jewish family was persecuted. Rage at the KGB that dogged her footsteps and blocked her from traveling for six years. Rage that the Bolshoi (which was directly connected to the Kremlin) stalled her attempts to participate in new work. The fight in her was thrillingly evident onstage.


After age 13, Maya Plisetskaya was brought up in Moscow by her aunt, Sulamith Messerer, a well known dancer. Her uncle, Asaf Messerer, was a famous teacher at the Bolshoi. She showed signs of talent early on at the Bolshoi School and joined the company at 18. By 20 she was dancing lead roles. Her body was pliable, her temperament strong, and her mind quick. 


In “Grand Pas Hongroise” from
Raymonda, her first lead role


She performed Swan Lake more than 800 times, often for visiting dignitaries. One of the cruel ironies of her life was that she was ordered to dance the ballet for Stalin’s 70th birthday, knowing he had been responsible for destroying her family. But then her whole career was one of tumult. She lived with the paradox of being persecuted while also valued as one of the Soviet Union’s greatest exports. As Ismene Brown wrote last year, “Red-headed and athletically iconoclastic, Maya was the glory of the Bolshoi Ballet when it was gunned into service as the USSR’s global propaganda vehicle. First considered unexportable, because of her family connections, she suddenly became, in Khrushchev’s mercenary eyes, a pearl of great price. He spared no expense in putting the fear of God in her to stop her defecting.”


Bored with endless rounds of Swan Lake, Don Q, and Sleeping Beauty, Plisetskaya lobbied for new work to be made on her. She championed choreographer Leonid Yacobson, who made the Bolshoi’s first Spartacus in 1962. (Dance scholar Janice Ross has just published a book about him.)



Maya in 1987, relaxing at a friend’s home in NYC. Photo by Nina Alovert


This is where my own memories come in. I got to be onstage with Plisetskay in 1962, when the Bolshoi came to the old Met. They needed American teenagers for the crowd scenes in Yacobson’s Spartacus (which preceded Grigorovich’s more famous Spartacus by six years). She originated the role of Phyrigia, wife of Spartacus. In her adagio with him, she expressed romantic despair with such sensuality that I was mesmerized. In the parade scene we extras had to point and laugh at Phrygia as a slave, which was…hard to do. I would watch her warm up on the stage just before the show. She did high-knee prances to get herself going. (My friend Rosemary Novellino-Mearns posted a detailed memory of the superstar as well as the audience reaction to Spartacus.)



Plisetskaya was not cowed by the Soviet attempts to rein her in. In 1956 when she was barred from joining the much-anticipated tour to London, she appealed to every bureaucrat she knew. Her last resort was contacting British ambassador John Morgan. For this she was branded a spy by the KGB.


When Grigorovich took over the Bolshoi Ballet in 1964, he tried to hold her back. But she had her own coterie and was able, after surmounting political and artistic obstacles, to create a ballet of Anna Karenina to her husband Rodion Shchedrin’s music.


In Alberto Alonso’s



In her late 40s, when the KGB let up on her a bit, she went to France to work with Roland Petit and Béjart. In Béjart’s Bolero there were so many repeats that she had a hard time memorizing the sequence—the cat, the crab, the sun, the Hungarian lady, the Bridget Bardot, etc. She was ready to pack her bags until Béjart offered to be her prompter. He stood at the back of the house, a flashlight illuminating him, directing her as though he were “a traffic cop.” (See a clip of her in Bolero here expand=1].)



When she finally got clearance to commission Alberto Alonso’s Carmen in 1967, it was almost stopped at the last minute. But she ended up performing it hundreds of times. (Here is a clip of her performing it with Alexander Godunov in 1974.)


Her longevity was amazing. She was still performing the Dying Swan at 71. At her week-long 80th birthday celebration she performed Ave Maya, a solo made for her by Béjart, and also engaged in an impromptu duet with flamenco artist Joaquin Cortés. She loved Spain, though she and Shchedrin settled in Munich after the Soviet Union crumbled.


Maya in “Tribute to Isadora Duncan,” wearing dress originally owned by Duncan. Photo by Graziella Vigo.


Her autobiography, I, Maya Plisetskaya, is infused with her anger, and something else that makes it rich reading: an exquisitely wry sense of humor. The attempts of the endless Soviet committees and bumbling authorities to punish her seem more absurd than cruel.


Teaching at David Howard’s studio. (I was watching that class and I remember that leotard, with fire-engine red streaks in it).


We owe the gift of her dancing to her refusal to back down. The advice she gives in her book reflects her grit and drive: “Future generations, let me advise you. Listen to me. Don’t submit, don’t submit until the very end. Do not submit. Even then—fight, shoot back, blow your horns, beat your drums, make phone calls…don’t give up, struggle, right until the very last moment. It has happened—even totalitarian regimes have backed down in the face of obsession, conviction, and drive. My victories rested only on this. Nothing else! Character is indeed destiny.”





Maya in rehearsal


Want more on Maya?

Click here for a 1964 documentary about her. And here she is taking class with Asaf Messerer, flanked at the barre by Vladimir Vasiliev and Ekaterina Maximova.

—Wendy Perron


All photos courtesy Dance Magazine Archives


*Please note that obituaries are not fact-checked for content.