Plisetskaya, Maya (1925—)

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Plisetskaya, Maya (1925—)

Prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet who challenged the traditional artistic standards of the Russian dancing establishment. Name variations: Maia Plisetskaia or Plisvetskaia; Mayechka (pronounced MY-echka). Pronunciation: MY-ya Plee-SYET-skaya. Born Maya Mikhailovna Plisetskaya on November 20, 1925, in Moscow; daughter of Mikhail Borisovich Plisetsky (an engineer) and Raissa (Rachel) Mikhailovna Plisetskaya (an actress); attended Bolshoi Ballet School; married Rodion Shchedrin (a composer), in 1958; children: in December 2000, Plisetskaya won a libel suit against a Moscow newspaper, Moskovskiye Vedomosti , which had earlier reported that the dancer had secretly given birth to a daughter in 1978; the newspaper printed a retraction.


People's Artist of the USSR (1959); Lenin Prize (1964); Hero of Socialist Labor (1985).

Entered ballet school (1934); gave first performance with the Bolshoi Company (1936); father killed (1937); returned to wartime Moscow (1942); entered Bolshoi Ballet Company (1943); made first trip abroad (1959); became prima ballerina at Bolshoi (1960); awarded the Lenin Prize (1964); served as director, Spanish National Ballet (1987–90); celebrated 50th anniversary of her debut as member of Bolshoi Ballet Company (1993).

Major roles in ballet:

title role in The Dying Swan (1943); title role in Raymonda (1945); Odette-Odile in Swan Lake (1947); Kitri in Don Qixote (1950); Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (1952); Carmen in Carmen Suite (1967); title role in Isadora (1977).

Major roles in film:

Stars of the Russian Ballet (1953); Swan Lake (1957); The Little Humpbacked Horse (1962); Plisetskaya Dances (1966); Anna Karenina (1972).

Since the 18th century, Russian society has considered ballet to be a particularly worthy art form, and from the early 19th century it has been one in which Russians have traditionally played a leading role. This feature of pre-1917 Russian culture continued with even greater emphasis in the Communist era. Thus in the years during and after World War II, Maya Plisetskaya, at the height of her artistic powers as leading ballerina, was one of the most famous and revered artists of the Soviet Union.

The country in which Plisetskaya grew up and achieved professional fame went through a series of traumatic changes in the years of her youth, schooling, and professional success. The generation of Maya Plisetskaya's parents had witnessed the revolutions of 1917, which had overthrown the old monarchy and placed a Communist Party led by V.I. Lenin in power. She herself grew up during the deep changes that took place in Russian life and society starting in 1929. Under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, Lenin's successor, the Communist Party consolidated its power to become a full-fledged police state. Moreover, the 1930s saw the Soviet government forcing its peasant population onto collective farms and pushing forward an ambitious program to expand heavy industry. Millions whom the government designated dangerous members of Soviet society were purged: removed from their normal lives, confined for years in Siberian exile, and abandoned to die in hellish work camps. The tragic upheavals of the 1930s were followed by four years of fighting in World War II. During that bloody conflict, the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany, successfully defended itself, and then expanded into Eastern

and Central Europe. Stalin's death in 1953 brought a loosening of the police state and new contact with the outside world of Western Europe and the United States. Nonetheless, the average Soviet citizen continued to live under the threat of repression.

Maya Plisetskaya's life was profoundly influenced by the great changes in Soviet society. Her career, both hampered and promoted by the shifting political climate in her native country, illustrates the problems of a great artist tied to a dictatorial state. She was born in Moscow in 1925. Her father Mikhail Plisetsky was a noted engineer who directed Soviet coal mining operations in northern Norway. Her mother Raissa Plisetskaya was an actress who starred in silent films, and several of Maya's relatives were also prominent in the world of the arts. For example, Asaf and Sulamith Messerer , Maya's uncle and aunt, were prominent dancers and teachers with the Bolshoi Ballet Company. Both Maya's mother and father came from Jewish families, a fact that may have contributed to the distrust Soviet political authorities displayed toward the star ballerina in the 1950s and 1960s.

As a young child, Maya was fascinated with dancing and dancers, performing in front of impromptu audiences in the streets of Moscow at the age of three. But she did not find an easy entry into her profession. Her gangly body struck the admissions committee at the Bolshoi school as unsuited to ballet, until, as she remembered the occasion, she curtsied for them with such grace and flair that they accepted her. She entered the school of the Bolshoi Ballet at the age of eight and trained with the prominent teacher Elizaveta Gerdt .

The young girl quickly demonstrated both her vast talents and her rebellious nature. She openly disliked the rigors of formal ballet training. Her vitality, energy, and emotional impulses often expressed themselves at the expense of classical technique. She rejected an offer to study with Agrippina Vaganova , the great teacher of Leningrad's Kirov Ballet Company, where classical ballet training was strongly entrenched.

She epitomized artistic freedom in ballet; for my generation she was Ballet itself.

—Gennady Smakov

At an early age, Plisetskaya's life was marked by political upheaval. Her father was arrested and killed during the purges of the 1930s; her mother was imprisoned. During World War II, like many Soviet citizens, she was required to leave Moscow in the face of the German invasion. Her career took a spectacular turn when she defied military regulations and went back to the wartime capital in 1942. She soon began to dance leading roles in such ballets as The Dying Swan, Raymonda, and, starting in the late 1940s, Swan Lake, in which she danced the role of Odette-Odile.

Plisetskaya's special abilities—her remarkable physical and artistic qualities—soon became visible. The gangly young girl of the 1930s had developed into an extraordinary physical presence. Only a little over average height, she combined a beautiful face, auburn hair, and green eyes along with a long neck and long limbs to command the stage. Plisetskaya was able to leap as high as a male dancer, and her performances featured fluid arm movements and an extraordinary ability to hold a pose in the air. The ballet critics of Leningrad, steeped in the technical perfection demanded at the Kirov Ballet Company, often criticized her for her lack of technical polish. She herself regretted her lack of classical training: "I danced the way I felt," she said, "without any references to standards I never knew." Nonetheless, in Moscow, where she danced with the Bolshoi Ballet, her style made her a brilliant star. Throughout the 1950s, Plisetskaya appeared in virtually every Bolshoi production. Her greatest role was in Swan Lake; she played Odette-Odile in more than 500 performances.

Following Stalin's death, the Soviet Union established new artistic ties to the outside world. Stellar artists in such prestigious organizations as the Bolshoi Ballet Company began to tour Western Europe and the United States by the late 1950s. Plisetskaya, considered by many to be the Bolshoi's prima ballerina, the leading female dancer, was barred from one of these early tours. Her friendship with an admirer from Western Europe, a British diplomat, made her too unreliable for such a privilege. It was not the only humiliation she suffered during these years. Despite her artistic prominence, she and her husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin, lived in modest circumstances with none of the considerable luxuries normally available to star performers. Unlike other leading ballerinas, she could not obtain roles in new ballets written especially for her.

Nonetheless, Plisetskaya in time was allowed to demonstrate her talents abroad. Her fiery manner and extraordinary physical gifts made her a spectacular success when she reached New York with the Bolshoi in 1959. Her ability to perform a kick-jete, in which her dramatically arched back almost allowed her to touch her head with her extended leg, shocked and delighted her audience there. She returned to Moscow and, in 1960, the retirement of Galina Ulanova removed her last rival for the position of the Bolshoi's prima ballerina. Winning the Lenin Prize in 1964 brought Plisetskaya the material comforts that she had found unavailable earlier in her starring years.

During the 1960s, however, she became even more of a rebel in the orthodox artistic world of the ballet. Unwilling to restrict herself to performances in ballets that had not changed in decades, Plisetskaya used her prestige as her country's leading ballerina to develop and perform a very different kind of dance. The CarmenSuite, with music arranged by her husband, was an important example. First performed in 1967 at the Bolshoi, the ballet was considered by artistic conservatives to be a slap at the Russian tradition. Carmen, as played by Plisetskaya, was a wanton woman, and she showed her character with gestures that had never been seen before in the Russian ballet. Ironically, this daring piece was the first ballet specially created for Plisetskaya.

The tensions of being a ballet star in a society dominated by the political demands of the state became evident in a different way in the late 1960s. As a Soviet citizen with a Jewish background, Plisetskaya was forced to participate in public protests against the policies of the state of Israel.

As she grew older, Plisetskaya became a choreographer at the Bolshoi while continuing her career as a dancer. Her greatest achievements as a choreographer were in creating the ballets Anna Karenina (1972) and The Sea Gull (1980). Starting in the 1970s, she was increasingly free to travel, to appear with foreign companies, and work with non-Russian choreographers. She had a notable association with the French choreographer Maurice Bejart and his Ballet of the Twentieth Century. In the late 1980s, as restrictions on travel disappeared entirely in the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, she became the artistic director of the National Ballet of Spain, spending half of each year outside the Soviet Union.

The great ballerina's career changed its character only slightly as she aged. While organizing and judging international ballet competitions and teaching, Plisetskaya nonetheless continued to perform into the 1990s. In a dramatic moment, she returned to the Bolshoi in November 1993 to mark the 50th anniversary of her entry into the Bolshoi Company. She received a tumultuous welcome from a crowd that included the new Russian Republic's political leaders. Even to those far removed from the world of ballet, her name has come to symbolize supreme excellence and a commanding position in her field. When the basketball star Michael Jordan suddenly announced his retirement in October 1993, one European newscaster assessed the importance of this loss to the game by noting that without him basketball would be like "ballet without Plisetskaya." On November 20, 1995, she celebrated her 70th birthday by sublimely dancing The Dying Swan in front of an enraptured Russian audience; she followed that, wrote Time, with an "irrepressible" appearance in New York in 1996. "I still feel the magic," she said. "If I have no more interest in dancing, I'll stop."


Feifer, George. Our Motherland and Other Ventures in Russian Reportage. NY: Viking Press, 1973.

Smakov, Gennady. The Great Russian Dancers. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Time. May 27, 1996.

Voznesensky, Andrei, et al. Maya Plisetskaya. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976.

suggested reading:

Clarke, Mary, and Clement Crips. Ballerina: The Art of Women in Classical Ballet. London: BBC Books, 1987.

Montague, Sarah. The Ballerina: Famous Dancers and Rising Stars of Our Time. NY: Universe Books, 1980.

Neil Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California