Maya Mikhailovna Plisetskaya (Russian: Майя Михайловна Плисецкая) (November 20, 1925 - ) is a retired Russian ballet dancer, frequently cited as the greatest ballerina of the modern era. When she was very young, her family was ravaged by the Stalinist purges. However, Maya was encouraged by her artistic family to pursue dance and ballet. She was admitted to the Moscow Choreographic School, which produces most of the Bolshoi Ballet dancers, a year earlier than her classmates. She excelled in her studies and when accepted to the Bolshoi Theater ballet company, it was not as a member of the corps de ballet, but as a soloist. This was a highly unusual move, indicative of the enormous talent Plisetskaya presented.
Maya chaffed against the oppressive regime of the Soviet Union. During the 1950s, she was not allowed to travel abroad with the Bolshoi company, due to her strong will and individualist attitude. Yet her talent was undeniable. She rose to the top of the ballet world with her dancing. After a career which spanned six decades, she retired as a soloist and focused her attention towards teaching the next generation of ballet dancers.
Dance, and art in general, proved capable of breaking the Iron Curtain barrier, uniting East and West. Today the same potential exists to bring together people of all faiths and religions.
Maya Plisetskaya was born in Moscow, on November 20, 1925, to a prominent Jewish family. She went to school in Spitsbergen, where her father worked as an engineer and mine director. Maya's family was one well known for art and entertainment. Her mother, Rakhil Messerer, was a well known silent film actress. Maya's brother, Azari, also became a dancer. Her aunt, Elizaveta, was an actress in Moscow, and her cousin, Boris, was a distinguished set designer. Rakhil's sister and brother, Sulamith and Mikhail Messerer were both talented ballet dancers and soloists, and later distinguished teachers with the Bolshoi Ballet. They coached and encouraged Maya from her earliest days.
In 1937, Maya's father disappeared. It was fifty years before the family learned that he was executed in 1938, as part of Stalinist purges, possibly because he had hired a friend who had been a secretary to Leon Trotsky. Maya's mother was arrested and sent to a labor camp (or Gulag) in Kazakhstan, along with Maya's seven-month old brother They were sent to ALZHIR camp, a Russian acronym for the Akmolinskii Camp for Wives of Traitors of the Motherland, and were labeled "enemies of the people." Thereupon, Maya was adopted by her maternal aunt, the ballerina Sulamith Messerer, until her mother was released in 1941.
When Maya was eight, Sulamith had her enrolled in the Moscow Choreographic School, famous for producing most of the Bolshoi dancers, a year early—because "at home, she just can't help dancing." Maya then began the arduous but dedicated path towards becoming a ballet dancer. She took lessons six days a week, along with her regular school education. Her teacher for six years was the legendary Yelizaveta Gerdt, whose famous father had taught the likes of Anna Pavolva and Tamara Karsavina. Gerdt polished and refined young Maya's talent, referring to the apt student as her "little diamond."
When she was 11, Maya appeared as the Bread Crumb Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty. A year later, she danced the role of the cat in The Little Story, a children's ballet. In her seventh year, she danced the lead in Paquita, and her interpretation aroused much interest. She demonstrated sharp footwork, a remarkably high and seemingly effortless leap, and expressive movement—which would become one of her trademarks. When she graduated from the school in 1943, she was immediately accepted into the Bolshoi company—not as a member of the corps de ballet, but as a soloist. She would perform there until 1990.
From the beginning, Maya was a different kind of ballerina. Her bypass of the corps de ballet directly to featured performer was highly unusual. Her red hair and striking looks made her a glamorous figure on and off the stage. Her long arms had a fluidity that to this day remains unmatched; her interpretation of The Dying Swan, a short showcase piece made famous by Anna Pavlova, became Maya's calling card. Maya was known for the height of her jumps, her extremely flexible back, the technical strength of her dancing, and her charisma. She made her debut in 1947, performing Swan Lake for the first of what would end up being close to 500 times.
Despite her acclaim, Maya was not treated well by the Bolshoi management. Because she was Jewish in an anti-Semitic climate, her family had been purged during the Stalinist era and her personality was defiant, so she was not allowed to tour outside the country for six years after joining the Bolshoi. The Russian term for this was nevyezdnaya (unexportable), and it kept Maya from traveling with the Bolshoi in their trips abroad from 1956-1959. Her absence from the Bolshoi's triumphant visit to London, in 1956, it could be argued, barred her from her proper place in British ballet history. Her first stop after the lifting of the ban, in 1959, was a tour of the United States. She was forced to be a member of the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public, threatened to be left without passport for appearances abroad.
With the Bolshoi, Plisetskaya performed many classical roles, interpreting them uniquely but convincingly. She danced Raymonda, the dual role of Odette-Odile (Swan Lake), Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) Myrthe (Giselle), Kitri (Don Quixote), Tsar-Maiden (The Little Humpbacked Horse), and, again, The Dying Swan, which showcased Plisetskaya's famous flexibility. Her arms moved with such pliability as to seem boneless. She would attack the choreography of contemporary Soviet works with enthusiasm, throwing herself into the character and the dance with passion. Her presence dominated the stage, encompassing it with large, expansive movements. She expressed great musicality in her dancing.
In 1958, she was honored with the title of the People's Artist of the USSR and married the young composer Rodion Shchedrin, in whose subsequent fame she shared. After Galina Ulanova left the stage in 1960, Maya Plisetskaya was promoted to prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi Theatre. In the Soviet screen version of Anna Karenina, she played Princess Tverskaya. In 1967, she took on the role of Carmen, in the ballet Carmen-Suite. Featuring choreography by Cuban Alberto Alonso, the ballet gave full rein to Maya's dramatic and artistic talents, and continues to be one of her most famous—and favorite—ballets. In 1971, her husband composed a ballet, Anna Karenina, with Maya playing the leading role as well as taking on the roles of scenographer and choreographer. Other choreographers who created ballets for her include Yury Grigorovich, Roland Petit, and Maurice Bejart.
In the 1980s, Plisetskaya and Shchedrin spent much time abroad, with Plisetskaya working as the artistic director of the Rome Opera Ballet in 1984–5, then the Spanish National Ballet of Madrid from 1987–9. At the age of 65, she finally retired from her position as a soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet. On her 70th birthday, she debuted in a new ballet choreographed for her by Maurice Bejart entitled Ave Maya. Her performance of The Dying Swan at City Center in New York, also performed at age 70, earned her rave reviews. In 1996, she was named President of the Imperial Russian Ballet. On the date of her 80th birthday, the Financial Times summed up current opinion about Maya in the following words: "She was, and still is, a star, ballet's monstre sacre, the final statement about theatrical glamour, a flaring, flaming beacon in a world of dimly twinkling talents, a beauty in the world of prettiness." The following year, Emperor Akihito presented to her the Premium Imperiale, informally considered a Nobel Prize for Art.
Maya Plisetskaya's career stretches over sixty years. As her age makes it harder for her to perform at the same athletic she did in her youth, she has turned to teaching, influencing an entirely new generation of ballet dancers. In 1994, she founded the Russian Imperial Ballet. The same year, she presented her memoirs in Moscow, I, Maya Plisetskaya, which has been translated into fourteen languages, including German, Italian, Serbian, Japanese, and English. In 2000, she and her husband founded the International Maya Plisetskaya and Rodion Shchedrin Foundation, in Maintz, Germany, to conserve, document, and facilitate access to their collective artistic works. In the 1990s, she presided over the annual international ballet competitions called Maya, a competition allowing participants considerable freedom in choosing their dance styles.
Plisetskaya's dancing style impacted generations of dancers all around the world, following the footsteps of other Russian prima ballerinas such as Galina Ulanova and Anna Pavlova. She performed Swan Lake over five hundred times in her career, and was properly dubbed "The Queen of the Air."
Maya Plisetskaya has been honored on numerous occasions for her skills:
All links retrieved May 8, 2015.
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