MARIUPOL, Ukraine — I was on my way to the war zones of Ukraine when I heard on Saturday that the idol of my childhood, and my adulthood as well, had died in Munich halfway through her 90th year on earth. She was, if one wants to state things simply, a ballerina, a prima ballerina assoluta, if you will. But there was nothing simple about Maya Plisetskaya.
“Your character is your fate,” she once wrote, and she was fated to demonstrate her extraordinary character many times in her life.
It struck me as sadly ironic that she should pass away a week before May 9, the 70th anniversary of Victory Day, when Nazi Germany capitulated to the Soviet Union. All through that long, horrific war, she had performed at the Bolshoi in Moscow, bringing her Soviet fans a sense of hope and, indeed, of freedom. But that is not exactly what the government of today is promoting, with its nationalist triumphalism and growing disregard for liberty.
To break the rules and liberate your spirit in the face of repression, was the rule Plisetskaya promoted.
She was just 11 years old when she made her first appearance on the Bolshoi’s stage, her face all covered in freckles and, as her teachers remembered, “as red as a carrot.” She danced the part of a fairy in “Sleeping Beauty.” But when she was 13, in 1938, the Stalin regime executed her father. Her mother was sent to the Gulag for eight years.
Since Plisetskaya’s death, Russian bloggers have been reposting the extraordinary interview she gave to Channel 1 in 2004, a post-Perestroika moment in the early years of Vladimir Putin’s rule. The words seemed as up to date as this morning’s sun breaking through the clouds when she talked about the tyranny of communism and the way many Russians accepted it: “For me personally it is even worse than fascism,” she said, “but they did not understand it then and believed sincerely.”
The whole world came to know about the violent evils of fascism and the Nazis, Plisetskaya explained, but many of the atrocities carried out by the communists were, and remained, hidden. If Stalin had decided to order all the Jews exterminated, Plisetskaya, who was Jewish, told the interviewer, nobody would have survived, including her, and few people would ever have known what happened. “Nobody knew what NKVD [the dreaded secret police] did to people in their camps; the truth was hidden and lied about,” she said. “I think there were more victims, many more.”
As a dancer, Plisetskaya was famous for her unique flexibility, her bright red hair, her aristocratic profile, and her amazingly expressive arms, which she insisted the Bolshoi costume makers should leave uncovered.
When I was a little girl in ballet school, like so many thousands of young students, I wanted desperately to emulate the woman we called Maya Mikhailovna, in the respectful patronymic style. I remember pulling on my toe-shoes as soon as I saw her performance of “The Dying Swan” on TV. Plisetskaya had adapted Anna Pavlova’s famous miniature and turned it into her own signature dance. As a child ballerina I tried to copy the beauty of the little waves of her arms, as if ripples on the surface of the water, and her magic pas de bourrée.
She was no more accepting of the tyranny of age than she was of the tyranny of men. Who said that ballerinas could not dance and had to retire at age 40? Maya Mikhailovna taught all of us to stay unbreakable and brave, continuing to dance into her 80s.
Plisetskaya’s old friend, the ballet historian Vadim Gayevskiy told The Daily Beast on Tuesday, “The Bolshoi Theater should feel guilty—and they do feel guilty— for removing the legend from the theater before her time, for not appreciating her artistic talents enough, for not inviting Plisetskaya to teach a single class.” He went on, clearly bitter on her behalf: “Today the Bolshoi has no big scale personalities left.”
Her final parting with the Bolshoi did not come, in fact, until 1990, but she had said goodbye earlier when its directors declared Plisetskaya had “lost her professional form.” She moved to be a ballet director of the Rome Opera in 1983, and then an artistic director of Ballet del Teatro Lirico Nacional in Madrid in 1987, where this “rebellious ballerina” known for “protest choreography” continued to inspire several more generations of young dancers.
“Our goddess has passed, the symbol of the entire ballet world,” said Diana Vishneva, a prima ballerina at the Mariinskiy Theater, who was dearly loved by Plisetskaya and has danced many of her roles.
Plisetskaya retired formally as a soloist when she was 63, but she never left ballet. On her 70th birthday, she debuted in “Ave Maya,” choreographed for her by Maurice Béjart. She danced “Ave Maya” again for her 80th anniversary and at 82 Plisetskaya, still steady on her high heels, once more danced Béjart’s piece at the Cap Roig Gardens festival in Spain.
In Ukraine, suffering as it is from a separatist war, Plisetskaya is remembered as a beautiful woman with uniquely strong character who came to give a benefit concert in Donetsk in the 1990s. "A ticket to her evening program cost unbelievable money for us,” says Peter Andryushchenko, a volunteer in besieged Mariupol. “Our family paid that huge money for one ticket, so my wife could see Plisetskaya, live on stage…. My wife still remembers that day."
What was the recipe for what seemed the ballerina’s everlasting youth? “You should not stuff yourself with any food,” she answered the frequently asked question. And perhaps love. She had lived abroad over the last few years together with her husband, the famous Russian composer Rodion Shedrin, who was the love of her life.
Her friends say that no system could break Plisetskaya, no rules could bend her spirit.
That is worth remembering, I thought as I arrived in the war zone of Ukraine, where spirit sometimes seems to be all that keeps people alive. And it is good, even here—especially here—to be thinking about peace, and about the sheer beauty of the dancing, which, in the worst of times, can lift one’s faith in art, and one’s hope for the future.