Maya Plisetskaya: Step by Step to the Pedestal

Майя Плисецкая: шаг за шагом на пьедестал

She went on stage when she was 7 and when she was 70, performed leading roles hundreds of times, staged her own performances. Plisetskaya never separated the stage and the life: she lived ballet.

The "mermaid" debut and start in ballet

Maya Plisetskaya was born in Moscow on November 20, 1925, into the family of a diplomat Mikhail Plisetsky and actress Rachel Messerer. At the age of five, the girl went to the theater for the first time and two years later she took the stage herself. The little artist participated in Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s opera Rusalka (Mermaid). The performance took place in the town of Barentsburg on the Norwegian archipelago of Spitzbergen. The Plisetsky family lived there because of their father's job. Maya Mikhailovna wrote about her first role in her book, I, Maya Plisetskaya: 

“The role of the little mermaid, who speaks the famous Pushkin lines, “But what is money, I know not,” was given to me. I don’t know whether it was our traditional Soviet sucking-up - father was the consul, after all - or because I truly was artistic. With no false modesty I can say that I was. So even if they were sucking up, they didn’t go wrong. I played my tiny part with flair.”

Two years later, Maya Plisetskaya entered the Moscow choreographic school. She studied in the class of Evgenia Dolinskaya, who was the soloist of the Bolshoi Theater then. However, the girl had to interrupt her studies soon as her father was to return from Moscow to Spitzbergen.

In 1935, the Plisetskys returned to the capital again and Maya went to the second grade of the school. Elizaveta Gerdt, the former soloist of the Mariinsky Theater became her mentor then. The role of this ballerina in the formation of Plisetskaya was critical: Gerdt shared her experience and taught the young dancer for six years. 

A period of trials and training

The ill-fated year 1937 was tragic for the family of the future ballerina too. Her father was arrested in May and executed seven months later. A year later, Maya's mother went to see The Sleeping Beauty at the Bolshoi Theater, where one of the roles was played by her younger sister Sulamith Messerer. Rachel was arrested during the performance. Plisetskaya's mother, as the wife of an enemy of the people, was sentenced to exile to Chimkent (modern Shymkent) and separated from her daughter. The 13-year-old Maya, who was left without parents, was adopted by Sulamith.

Fortunately, Rachel Messerer escaped the fate of her husband: in exile, she even had a chance to teach dancing, although meetings with her family were forbidden for many months. Only in 1939 Maya was allowed to visit her mother. During this trip, the 14-year-old ballerina first appeared on stage with the miniature The Dying Swan at one of the dance evenings. Rachel Messerer was freed and allowed to return home only two years later.

At that time, Maya Plisetskaya continued to study at the choreographic school. In 1941, in the graduation performance, she danced the number Impromptu to the music by Tchaikovsky choreographed by Leonid Yakobson.

The Great Patriotic War and evacuation to Sverdlovsk (modern Ekaterinburg) was a new test for the ballerina and her family. It turned out to be impossible to continue practices and classes in the same scope: the company and teachers were scattered around the country. Sulamith Messerer, who came to the Sverdlovsk evacuation with the idea to stage Swan Lake, saved the day. Maya Plisetskaya danced the lead role again.

It was not necessary to stay in the evacuation for a long time: in 1942, the ballerina returned to the capital. A year later, she graduated from the choreographic school. At the final exam, Plisetskaya danced the Queen of the Dryads from the Don Quixote ballet. After the exam, passed with distinction, she got a job with the Bolshoi Theater - although it was a position of a corps de ballet artist with a minimum salary. 

Way up: jumping skills and solo parts

Maya Plisetskaya was a real success after taking part in the production of Chopiniana. She was dancing her mazurka - and the audience froze. In her book, the ballerina recalled: 

“I quickly grasped the “jumping” mazurka in Chopiniana in two rehearsals... And I danced it with thundering success...I deliberately tried to hover in the air for a moment at the top of each leap, and the audience responded enthusiastically. Each leap was accompanied by a crescendo of applause. I myself couldn’t have imagined that the audience would take such a liking in this little trick. It really was a great success.”

This ballet to the music by Chopin turned out to be truly happy and brought solo roles to Plisetskaya. Her stage career developed progressively: at first, she performed small but solo parts of fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. After that, Plisetskaya received the classical soloist parts of Masha in The Nutcracker, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Tsar Maiden in The Little Humpbacked Horse.

In 1950, the sequence of bright stage images continued with the role of Kitri in the ballet Don Quixote. For the ballerina, this role became as iconic as Odette-Odile in Swan Lake. By the way, the premiere of Don Quixote with Plisetskaya as Kitri was visited by Rudolf Nureyev, who was 13 years old back then. This performance was obviously an inspiring example of ballet art for the future dancer. Later, Nureyev recalled that Plisetskaya "set the stage on fire." 

Expanding the boundaries: world tours and choreography practice

In the 1950s, the ballerina toured extensively both in the country and abroad. In 1953, the Bolshoi company went to India. During the tour, Plisetskaya met with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and communicated with the people of the country. Unfortunately, such an active social position cost her participation in other tours. On the next tours to Europe and China the theater went without Plisetskaya, as the Soviet secret services had questions for her.

She was banned from travel abroad for quite a while: in 1958, when the Bolshoi artists were on tour in London and Maya Plisetskaya remained in Moscow, she began staging Swan Lake, which was so close to her in different life periods. This time, she combined the roles of a ballerina and a choreographer. The fact that all tickets for the premiere were sold out speaks volumes about the public's attitude to Plisetskaya. Representatives of the ruling party elite visited the first and subsequent performances too. The then Secretary General Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev made no secret of the fact that the production made an impression on him.

In her memoirs, Maya Mikhailovna wrote about the Swan Lake premiere reservedly, but conveying the emotion at the same time: 

“At the end of each act and after the last curtain - I cannot describe what went on. A squall. A storm. An eruption of Vesuvius.”

Despite the absolute success of Swan Lake, the ban on exiting the USSR remained until 1959. Then Plisetskaya was allowed to go together with the Bolshoi Theater company on tour in the USA: the American audience applauded her too. In the same 1959, the ballerina became the People's Artist of the USSR.

The 1950s brought Plisetskaya not only fame as a choreographer and an opportunity to perform on the world stages. In 1955, she met her future husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin. Before that, the ballerina was married to the Latvian dancer Maris Liepa. A relationship between Shchedrin and Plisetskaya began after he came to the premiere of the ballet Spartacus at the Bolshoi Theater. Then he visited the ballerina’s rehearsals, invited her for walks. According to the memoirs of Maya Mikhailovna, she "agreed without hesitation." 

A world-famous artist

In 1967, the audience of the Bolshoi Theater saw the ballet Carmen Suite for the first time. The musical accompaniment was created by Rodion Shchedrin, Plisetskaya performed the main part. However, the public considered Alberto Alonso’s choreography too innovative. The premiere didn’t cause much excitement.

In the following decades, Plisetskaya worked with Russian classics as a choreographer. In 1972, together with Natalia Ryzhenko and Viktor Smirnov-Golovanov, she staged Anna Karenina to the music by Rodion Shchedrin at the Bolshoi Theater, followed by Chekhov's The Seagull in 1980. About the staging of Tolstoy's novel Plisetskaya wrote: 

“The history of music has already got eight operas based on the plot of Anna Karenina. No one is surprised that the idea of making Anna sing, act on stage of dramatic theaters and come on the screen has been repeatedly implemented. I am convinced that choreographers working in the ballet genre will turn to this, as well as other Tolstoy's masterpieces many times.” 

Shchedrin's Anna Karenina had a long life on the Bolshoi stage - over 100 performances - and a TV adaptation in 1974. Other ballets in which Maya Plisetskaya danced also became films, among them are: Swan Lake, The Little Humpbacked Horse, The Seagull, The Lady And the Lapdog, Isadora.

The 1980s became another touring phase for Plisetskaya the ballerina. She performed in Europe a lot and in 1983 became the artistic director of the Opera and Ballet Theater in Rome for a year and a half. Maya Mikhailovna staged the ballets Raymonda and The Nutcracker with the local company. Recognition of theater critics was not long in coming: for her Italian performances, Plisetskaya was honored with the Via Condotti arts award.

The ballerina became, without exaggeration, a person of the world. During the same period, from 1988 to 1990, she worked at the Royal Theater in Madrid, held the position of artistic director of the National Ballet of Spain, and collaborated with Montserrat Caballe. Plisetskaya had long been more than a prima ballerina - she was a choreographer, a great artist. Although she herself admitted that she was “more of a performer by nature”. 

"I’ve never been eager to become a choreographer. This passion never tormented me. I'm more of a performer by nature. Although I’ve always had tons of fantasies and ideas. My little choreographic tryouts were born by the circumstances."

Maya Plisetskaya was faithful to her vocation as a performing artist, a great dancer until she was 65 years old. A brilliant long stage career made her a living legend of world ballet.

The last production for Plisetskaya was Chekhov's The Lady and the Lapdog: the ballerina danced it on the Bolshoi stage in 1990. After that, Maya Mikhailovna left the theater, but not ballet.

In the 1990s, she collaborated with world-famous choreographers, participated in concerts, taught master classes and was active in social work. For example, she organized an international competition for ballet dancers "Maya" and became the chairman of the judges. Moreover, Plisetskaya taught at the Moscow State University and wrote autobiographical books.

There was place for the stage in her life too: in 1995, on her birthday, the 70-year-old ballerina danced the solo number Ave Maya, staged for her by the French choreographer Maurice Béjart.

Plisetskaya was adored even on the other side of the world. In 2000, she danced the part of the Sky Fairy in the production of Kimono Wings in Japan. Three years later she staged a number for the musical Aida to the music by Verdi in Tokyo.

The ballerina spent the last years of her life together with her husband in Munich, visiting Russia only occasionally. Maya Mikhailovna Plisetskaya died on May 2, 2015, several months before her 90th birthday.

Her passing was absolutely rightly compared to the end of an era. Dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov called  Plisetskaya “one of the greatest dancers of our time, Yves Saint Laurent's and Pierre Cardin's muse, beautiful and graceful...” 

The great ballerina has no grave: she asked to scatter her ashes together with the ashes of her husband, Rodion Shchedrin, when he passes. Three years ago, in an interview, the composer said: 

“I had a great wife, with whom I had an exceptional relationship. We understood each other perfectly. I attribute this mainly to her personality, to her tolerance. With her, I was happy immeasurably, endlessly. It was always interesting for me to be with her."