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Monday, February 1, 2016

Honoring Maya Plisetskaya

Maya Plisetskaya. Photo: ITAR-TASS Photo Agency
By Susan Yung

Dance may be the most viscerally affecting of art forms, but its evanescence is painfully apparent when considering the bygone stars of, for example, ballet—in this case, Russian prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya (1925—2015), whose career reached its height mid-20th century. Most people, even ballet fans, have little first-hand knowledge of this famous dancer. And yet she has exerted a profound influence on the genre and its current standard-bearers, such as the Mariinsky Theatre’s Diana Vishneva and Uliana Lopatkina, who bring four Maya-inspired programs to BAM this month, with the Mariinsky’s magnificent orchestra led by Maestro Valery Gergiev, who was a friend of Plisetskaya’s. With the help of archival troves and the ubiquity of video, we can glean why she made such an impression on our era’s artists.

From the outset, there’s a divide—Plisetskaya was a Bolshoi ballerina, and we will be seeing Mariinsky stars paying her tribute. But there’s a deep-rooted connection: In 1943, for three months, Maya studied with Agrippina Vaganova, after whom the Mariinsky’s legendary Vaganova Ballet Academy is named (although she assumed leadership of it long after its founding). Of the teacher, in the 1976 book Portrait of Plisetskaya (Progress Publishers, Moscow), Maya said: “Her lessons provided a unique combination of academic grounding and at the same time full inner freedom and an awareness of one’s power over one’s own body.” Vaganova’s skill was so great, she adds, that “she could teach an elephant to dance.”

Uliana Lopatkina. Photo: Valentin Baranovsky
Her American debut was belated, relative to the trajectory of her career. The USSR was under Communist rule, and her political beliefs may have hindered her freedom to tour with the Bolshoi. (She even signed a petition against elevating the reputation of Stalin.) But when she finally appeared in New York, her performance matched advance buzz. New York Times’ critic John Martin gushed, “To see a body so responsive to the theatrical moods of the passing moment, so creatively energized, and so completely without technical problems is quite an experience. And when it belongs to so enchanting a personality, it becomes doubly so. No wonder audiences scream and yell with delight whenever she appears.” His gratitude extended to Krushchev: “Spasibo, Nikita Sergeyevitch!,” he ended the review.

With the Bolshoi, Plisetskaya performed for President Kennedy in his first outing after the Cuban Missile Crisis in November of 1962. The First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, and daughter Caroline had watched a company rehearsal that afternoon. Caroline was so taken that she asked to watch another rehearsal. It is during that tumultuous era of US-Soviet relations, when war seemed a hair-trigger away, and figures such as Rudolf Nureyev were defecting, that Plisetskaya’s popularity peaked.

New York Times critic Clive Barnes reviewed a 1963 London Bolshoi performance of Don Quixote, and wrote, “Miss Plisetskaya, practically snarling with happiness, swept through it exultantly and triumphantly. Her wild pantherine leaps and rapid turns were breathtaking; this was bravura dancing of simple greatness.”

While Plisetskaya performed outside of the USSR in classic Bolshoi ballets such as Giselle and Swan Lake, she was also featured in Soviet fare such as Spartacus, a vivid spectacle of flash and power. But she also guested with Maurice Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century, dancing in Boléro, which he created for her. As Barnes noted in The Times: “Béjart and Plisetskaya have something very much in common—they are rebels, populists and both have a mixture of intensity and sincerity that is all but unbearable, but comes across as true. They also both share a special view of the physicality, even the sensuality, of dance. … The collaboration between Béjart and Plisetskaya might at first sight seem odd. But when you look at it, it really isn’t. They are both classical ruffians, and they are both intensely concerned with immediate communication with audiences.”

At BAM, we will see the film of Plisetskaya dancing Boléro, accompanied by Gergiev leading the Mariinsky Orchestra. The New York Times’ James Oestreich covered it when it was performed at the 2015 Verbier Festival (Switzerland): “Ms. Plisetskaya’s dancing on the film is utterly captivating in its simplicity, and Mr. Gergiev managed the tricky task of wedding the musical performance to its every subtly shifting beat. The Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, Ms. Plisetskaya’s widower and another Gergiev intimate, was in attendance.” She spent the latter part of her life living with Shchedrin in Munich, distanced from the Bolshoi.

BAM audiences will see Lopatkina perform The Dying Swan, a solo for which Plisetskaya was famous. In Portrait of Plisetskaya, she revealed insight on her interpretation. “In Dying Swan, for example, the arms are the swan itself, its fight against death. The arms are its swan song, its melody.” She added, “It’s important to dance the music, not to the music.”

Additional highlights will include other roles danced by Plisetskaya, such as excerpts from La Rose Malade, Carmen Suite, and Melody, choreographed by Plisetskaya’s uncle, Assaf Messerer, and numerous others. The Mariinsky Orchestra will also present a program of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos performed by five stellar pianists, conducted by Gergiev.

The Mariinsky's Tributes to Maya Plisetskaya come to BAM Feb 25—28, and great tickets are still available.

Susan Yung is Senior Editorial Manager at BAM.

Reprinted from January 2016 BAMbill.

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