The Legacy of Maya Plisetskaya, Cold War-Era Bolshoi Ballerina

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Maya Plisetskaya dances "The Dying Swan" during a Stars of the Bolshoi Ballet performance at Lincoln Center's Metropolitan Opera House, in New York City, September 21, 1974. Linda Vartoogian/Getty

Maya Plisetskaya, former prima ballerina assoluta at the Bolshoi Ballet, died Saturday at age 89. She stepped out from behind the Iron Curtain and onto a Western stage for the first time in 1959, and she dazzled New York in Swan Lake's dual lead role of Odette/Odile, becoming not only a premier performer in the Soviet Union but also a world-renowned star and one of the most famous ballerinas of the 20th century.

Plisetskaya, born to a Jewish family in Moscow on November 20, 1925, studied at the Bolshoi Ballet School in the 1930s and joined the company in 1943. During Joseph Stalin's purges, while she was still a student, her father was arrested and executed and her mother was arrested and exiled to Kazakhstan. Plisetskaya's aunt and uncle, both famous dancers at the Bolshoi, took her in.

Though she quickly rose through the ranks of the company and took on large and leading roles, she was barred from traveling abroad with the company until 1959, when she was added at the last minute to the roster of dancers headed for the Bolshoi's first tour in the U.S. In our April 20, 1959, issue, Newsweek wrote:

Russia's pre-eminent Bolshoi Ballet was the hottest attraction on Broadway. New Yorkers waited in line at the box office for hours in the rain to buy the few remaining tickets.... New York ballet lovers were…excited by the unexpected announcement that Maya Plisetskaya, the fiery, dark-haired dancer whose prestige is second only to that of the great Galina Ulanova, will join the Russian company for its U.S. engagement. Never allowed to dance in the West before (reportedly for fear she would defect), Plisetskaya, who is in her early 30s, has won a worldwide reputation for her technical strength, vigor, and spirit. Possible reason why the Kremlin is now turning her loose: It attaches the utmost propaganda value to the Bolshoi's appearance here.

Plisetskaya's U.S. debut came at a time when ballet made prominent headlines in America—in part because of its role as a tool of Cold War cultural diplomacy between the U.S. and Soviet Union—and dancers regularly became household names. The Bolshoi made the cover of Newsweek the week before we wrote about Plisetskaya's arrival.

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The Bolshoi Ballet's tour to the U.S. landed the company a Newsweek cover on April 13, 1959. Newsweek

Though Plisetskaya never defected, some of the other household names did, like Rudolf Nureyev, who defected 1961, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who followed in 1974. (Baryshnikov, along with American ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, graced the cover of Newsweek's May 19, 1975 issue.)

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Mikhail Baryshnikov, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1974, graced the cover of Newsweek, along with American ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, on May 19, 1975. Newsweek

The Bolshoi returned to the U.S. again in 1962, and this time, Plisetskaya was second to nobody. Newsweek, in our September 17, 1962, issue, wrote:

The New Queen

Three years ago, when the Bolshoi Ballet made a spectacular debut in this country, the queen of the occasion was Galina Ulanova, a pale blonde made of moonlight and muscle, who had reigned for more than two decades over the Soviet ballet. Last week, when the Moscow troupe came back to the Metropolitan Opera House, Ulanova came back also, but in a new role. Now retired to the post of ballet mistress, Ulanova gracefully avoided the limelight while the cheers went to the new queen, red-haired Maya Plisetskaya.

Plisetskaya won two opening-night ovations, one at the Met for her vividly compelling portrayal of the dual Odette-Odile role in "Swan Lake," the other on her entrance at the post-performance supper party given by impresario S. Hurok. The ballerina's presence at the party helped to give balletomane guests one of those thrills that they live by, for here in the same room were three generations of Soviet prima ballerinas: Plisetskaya, Ulanova, and motherly looking Marina Semyonova, who was Russia's great classical star in the '30s. Like Ulanova, Semyonova serves the Bolshoi as a ballet mistress and guardian of artistic standards.

Warmth: Despite the best efforts of these brilliant watchbirds, it must be said, however, that the Bolshoi still does not dance with the taste, elegance, and refinement of its sister company, the Kirov from Leningrad. But in Plisetskaya, it has a dynamic star with built-in audience appeal. Her technique is strength itself, and her powers of projection keep her audience nailed to the backs of their seats. Confidence and maturity appear to have deepened her bright fires, for her Odette now has the tenderness and warmth it lacked when she danced the role in the U.S. three years ago. Her Odile remains pure witchery.

At 37, Plisetskaya has always found dancing easy, but she found fame and fortune more elusive. For a variety of reasons, ranging from independence of spirit to religious persecution (she comes from a famous old Russian-Jewish theatrical family), she did not enjoy the favors of the Stalinist Kremlin. In 1956, she was not allowed to go with the company to Britain; when she first came to dance in the U.S., the rest of her family stayed in Russia. But last week, Plisetskaya's visit to New York was a family affair. Her husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin; her uncle, the choreographer Asaf Messerer, and her two brothers, both Bolshoi dancers, shared her triumph at the Met.

Plisetskaya—who continued performing past her 60th birthday (much later than most ballet dancers)—recounted her childhood, struggles with the Stalin regime and first tours to the U.S., as well as her later career as dancer and choreographer and eventual move to the West, in her autobiography I, Maya Plisetskaya, published in the U.S. in 2001.

The book reflects Plisetskaya's far-from-sunny feelings about life in the Soviet Union: "We were born in the bottomless, swampy labyrinths of the Stalinist system," she writes. "Surrounded round the clock every day by bellicose lies. They penetrated our ears, eyes, nostrils, pores, brain. We were stuffed to stupefaction, to dullness with them."

Plisetskaya choreographed ballets like "Anna Karenina" (1972), "The Seagull" (1980) and "Lady With a Dog" (1985), and served as artistic director of the Rome Opera Ballet (1983-84) and the Ballet del Teatro Lirico Nacional in Madrid (1987-1990). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, she and her husband moved to Munich, Germany, where they were still living at the time of her death. Shchedrin and Plisetskaya's brother, Azari Plisetsky—who was also a dancer as well as a choreographer and teacher—survive her.

In some of her most famous roles:

The Legacy of Maya Plisetskaya, Cold War-Era Bolshoi Ballerina | Culture