Why Are Some Great Russian Dancers Superstars and Others Aren’t?

July 28, 2008

Last weekend I saw two documentaries: Katia et Volodia (1988), and Maïa (1999). (They were part of “Dominique Delouche: Ballet Cineaste,” a series sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.) The first is about two of the most beautiful dancers of our time: Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vasiliev. They could have been international superstars, but because they didn’t defect, their fame was limited. Maximova had an intense loveliness with a hint of tragedy about her, but when she was happy she sparkled —a bit like Margot Fonteyn. Vasiliev was an amazing turner and leaper, but more then that, every breath had the kind of drama that made the Bolshoi exciting. His prowess, I believe, rivaled that of Baryshnikov. In the film, Maximova and Vasiliev do not speak much about life under Soviet rule. But in a Q & A afterward, Delouche said that Vasiliev had confided to him that he had regrets…..

Maya Plisetskaya, though she was held back by Soviet officials for years, became a full-fledged superstar (without defecting). Maybe it was because she knew how to resist the authorities. At one point in the film she says, “I’ve been resisting all my life.” Which may be a clue to her fantastic performances. In the clips of her as Kitri, you can see her chin jut out in determination or lift in triumph.

It’s a bit disconcerting the way Béjart has his arm (possessively) around her shoulders while he was talking about her, to her, even while she recited a poem by Essenin. But it was Béjart who granted her wish for daring dancing—both in the Isadora solo he made for her and his Bolero. She relates how, in Bolero, the music so repetitive that it was hard for her to remember the sequence. So during the performance Béjart stood in the control booth and showed her the shapes—the crab, the cat—so she knew what to do.

Because her father was killed by Stalin’s purges and her mother was sent to a camp in the Gulag (as one of 6,000 “enemy wives” who didn’t know that they were actually widows), she grew up hating the Soviet authorities. I think she had lost so much—her father, her mother, her childhood—that she felt she had nothing left to lose. So when the Soviet officials forbade her to go to NYC to dance at a Martha Graham gala in which Nureyev and Baryshnikov were also dancing, she threatened them back by telling them the bad press they would get if she didn’t show up. She got her way, and when she arrived in NYC, she saw that the concession stand was selling Graham-Nureyev-Baryshnikov-Plisetskaya T-shirts embazoned with photos of all four famous dancers. She joked that it was just like the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin T-shirts that sold in Soviet Union.

Her sense of humor is delightful. One can also glean this from reading her autobiography, I, Maya Plisetskaya (Yale University Press, 2001), in which her account of her date with Bobby Kennedy, KGB men trailing behind, is hilarious.

The film shows that Plisetskaya was a performing animal (certainly not a technical animal—she admits that she was so talented that she didn’t have to work hard during her training). She seemed a bit stiff when she was coaching. But when she demonstrated, you saw the luxurious port de bras that comes from working under the shoulder blades, and it was dreamy.

As Béjart says in the film, Plisetskaya embodied freedom onstage and in her life. I know that she fought for that freedom. Perhaps Katia and Volodia were just not fighters—though they too were great artists.