By Walter Rutledge
Maya Plisetskaya one of the most acclaimed ballerinas of the 20th Century has died of a heart attack in Germany at the age of 89. Known as both a superlative technical and dramatic performer, Plisetskaya was a mainstay in Russian ballet for more than five decades. Mikhail Chvydkoi, a former Russian culture minister, described Plisetskaya as a dancer who “was anchored in the Russian tradition but always tried to explore new horizons”.
Her life unfolded like an Anton Chekhov novel. Born into a prominent Russian-Jewish artistic family, Maya saw her parents arrested. Her father executed on trumped-up political charges during Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s. Her mother arrested and, with Maya’s seven-month-old baby brother, sent to a labor camp (Gulag) in Kazakhstan.
Her maternal aunt and uncle, Sulamith and Asaf Messerer gave her a home, saving her from the orphanage for children of “traitors”. The Messerers were famous soloists with the Bolshoi, who later taught at the school. And it was her aunt that took 8 year old Maya to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.
Her talent was immediately recognized, and during her teenage years she was already a rising star at the school. In 1949, she danced at Stalin’s 70th birthday celebration, with Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party of China, in attendance. Ten years later she would replace Galina Ulanova as Prima Ballerina Abosulta of the Bolshoi Ballet.
Dying Swan 1959
She rose to international fame after Russian President Nikita Khrushchev personally lifted the ban on her international travel in 1959. Plisetskaya performed her trademark piece, The Dying Swan, and the lead parts in Swan Lake, Spartacus, and The Sleeping Beauty. She quickly became synonymous with Soviet ballet itself, which was undergoing resurgence. The Soviet Union treated her as a favored cultural emissary, as “the dancer who did not defect”.
During her 50 years as a performer she remained at the Bolshoi. Plisetskaya continued to captivate audiences with the purity of her performances and dazzling looks that she retained into later years. In the 1970s and 1980s Plisetskaya became as famous for her longevity as much as her prowess, her silhouette unchanged, and her movement as graceful. She also became the muse of two French designers Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin.
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Choreographer Maurice Bejart, described Plisetskaya as “dance’s last living legend”. Ballet critic Tatyana Kuznetsova cited the ballerina’s performance of Béjart’s Bolero, “A hymn to eroticism, at the age of 50, in which she was surrounded by 30 men”. She was praised for her interpretation of a failed romance in Lady with the Little Dog, adapted from a Chekhov story, when she was 60. The dance world marveled at her timeless performance of The Dying Swan at 61. She retired as a soloist in 1990, at the age of 65; but returned to the stage in 2005 for a gala performance at the Kremlin to mark her 80th birthday, dancing Ave Maya created for her by Béjart.
Beginning in the 1990s she divided her time between Russia and Europe with her husband of 57 years virtuoso pianist and world-renowned composer Rodion Shchedrin. The couple never had children, “It was a choice between a career and childcare, and I chose the former, a decision my husband grudgingly accepted.” She explained. Shchedrin was her most enduring and endearing collaborator. He arranged Carmen Suite, Anna Karenina and The Seagull among others, which she choreographed and she starred. She is survived by her husband and brother Azari Plisetsky, a retired dancer.
As tributes poured in from the world over, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, described her as a, “Genius” and her passing “An end of an era.”
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Fountain of Bakhchisarai
Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya