Remembering the Incomparable Maya Plisetskaya

One of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century died this weekend in Germany at the age of 89. Maya Plisetskaya danced professionally for half the century, her performances and choreography having changed the nature of the art. She was an icon of Russia and the world, and she is sorely missed already.

According to the news, Maya died of a severe heart attack this weekend. Bolshoi director Vladimir Urin informed reporters that “Doctors did everything they could do to save her.” Husband and Russian Rodion Shchedrin let Urin know of the legendary dancer’s death. Urin went on to relate how Mrs. Plisetskaya was only weeks earlier laughing and in good spirits, adding:

Not just Russia but the entire world knew that Maya Plisetskaya was the symbol of Russian ballet in the 20th century.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, sent his condolences to her family.

Born in Moscow on November 20, 1925, Plisetskaya was orphaned early on, her parents having died early in her childhood. Her father was shot under Stalin’s regime in 1938 for being “an enemy of the people”, and her actress mother was accused of being a traitor and later sent to a labor camp in Kazakhstan. Raised by her aunt and uncle, she joined the Bolshoi in 1943 during World War II.

Plisetskaya performed for 50 years as a dancer – remaining at the Bolshoi well beyond the normal age limit. The graceful and beautiful artist captivated audiences with the purity of her performances, and her effervescent charm and sensuality, even as she grew older.  Her dazzling looks and radiant charisma never left the star, even up until her lasts days.

As recently as 2005, she took to the stage at a gala performance at the Kremlin to celebrate her 80th birthday. On this occasion she danced Ave Maya, a piece created by legendary French dancer and choreographer Maurice Béjart, specifically for her. The French legend described Maya before his own death in 2007 as “dance’s last living legend”. Plisetskaya was one of those artists who transcended any genre. She was part of the lore of performing arts, but also a popular figure in the same vein as a Maryln Monroe, the great Caruso, or even Fred Astaire.

As for legendary myths and lore that surround such unique people, there were many. One such story tells of Maya’s great friendship with the younger brother of slain president John F. Kennedy. JFK’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy often invited Maya to the family estate in Cape Cod, so the story goes, even up to the date of his assassination in 1968 as he campaigned for president. It is said that the Kennedy family was so endeared to the ballerina they named their sailboat “Maya” in her honor. Most telling of Maya’s appeal, is a unique facet of her charisma and charm, the artist’s outward reflecting of refinement and exuberance off stage was equal to any performance she delivered. An example of this is in something she once said of the aforementioned Robert Kennedy. When asked about the slain presidential candidate and their friendship, Plisetskaya replied: 

With me Robert Kennedy was romantic, elevated, noble, and completely pure. No seductions, no passes.”

In reflecting, this was a time when US-Russia relations were at an all time low. However, Plisetskaya’s legend tells us today of a brilliant and shining union of feeling, national condolences, and immutable class this lady was possessed of. If I may relate the following story of the days after Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed on the campaign trail in 1968. For those who remember, the United States and the world was stunned to learn of a second president lost to chaos. Not one, but two great leaders slain by an assassin’s bullet. 

To add irony and impact for the reader, surely Robert Kennedy would have won that year, and today we learn how his death was not only an American tragedy. The following was related by the dancer’s manager at the time concerning an unforgettable Bolshoi tribute performance at the Metropolitan Opera House: 

“The most appropriate way to open such an evening would be for the great Plisetskaya to perform The Dying Swan, which normally would close an evening’s program to thunderous applause with stamping feet, and clamors for an encore…. This assignment created an emotional burden for Maya. She really did not want to dance that work that night… I thought it was best for me to remain backstage in the wings. That turned out to be one of the most poignant moments I have ever experienced. Replacing the usual thunderous audience applause at the conclusion, there was complete silence betokening the feelings of a mourning nation in the packed, cavernous Metropolitan Opera House. Maya came off the stage in tears, looked at me, raised her beautiful arms and looked upward. Then disappeared into her dressing room.”

Of awards and prizes, Maya Plisetskaya earned every accolade worth holding, and so many of the personal nature. Ballet critic Tatyana Kuznetsova said of Plisetskaya; “no other prima ballerina in the history of dance had succeeded in remaining the centre of attention for 60 years.” Kuznetsova went on to mention the Maya’s performance of Béjart’s Bolero, a hymn to eroticism, performed by the legendary dancer even at age 50, as sensual and captivating.

The former Russian culture minister, Mikhail Chvydkoi, described Plisetskaya as a performer who “was anchored in the Russian tradition but always tried to explore new horizons”. To say she will be missed would be an unforgivable understatement. 

Here is a video tribute to Maya, the same dance she performed in remembering her slain friend Robert Kennedy in 1968, “The Dying Swan”.

Tribute to Maya Plisetskaya. Умирающий Лебедь. Майя Плисецкая.

Tribute to Maya Plisetskaya. The Dying Swan. RIP.Maya Plisetskaya, one of the most celebrated ballerinas and choreographers of the 20th century, died on Saturday at the ago of 89.2 мая в возрасте 89 лет ушла из жизни знаменитая балерина Майя Плисецкая. Видео: Умирающий лебедь в исполнении Майи Плисецкой. Она была лучшим лебедем.

Posted by St Petersburg Guide on Sunday, May 3, 2015


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