Triumph of a prima ballerina
Financial Times; 22 December 2001



I, MAYA PLISETSKAYA translated by Antonina W. Bouis Yale Pounds 25 / Dollars 35, 386 pages

The Moscow ballerina Maya Plisetskaya was - and, I know, still is - glorious, beautiful, dangerously gifted, irresistible on stage. She was worshipped in Russia, adored in Europe (especially in Paris), revered in North and South America and Australia: everywhere her lightning-bolt presence inspired fevered public response. London audiences, alas, viewed her rather as if a tigress had been unleashed in their drawing-rooms and some dinky pieces of Moorcroft pottery might fall victim to lash of her tail. I loved her, was knocked sideways by her interpretations - her Kitri in Don Quixote was like watching a volcanic eruption of joy and sublimest bravura; her Juliet, her Odette/Odile were portraits drawn with impassioned lines - and I became, like many others, a slave to her art.

She was also, and this is the most significant fact, an artist formed, bruised, shackled, insulted, used, by the Soviet system. The commissars and the hope-defeating bureaucrats of the Moscow ministries made her life - both artistic and private - an extended torture: torture by promises of travel that were then withdrawn; torture by the despatch of her mine-director father to death and her actress mother to a gulag; torture by mistrust (she was Jewish; her father was an enemy of the state) and by such indignities as making her take the massive dollar-fees she commanded back to Soviet officialdom. (She was lucky to see Dollars 50 from every Dollars 5,000.)

From 1943, when she graduated from the Bolshoi's ballet school into the main troupe, she danced exultantly. Her unquenchable desire for performance (she celebrated 50 years on stage in 1993, at the age of 68) has won her continued acclaim. Her marriage to the composer Rodion Shchedrin has been a central force in her life. And she remains an impassioned artist, as I found when we talked before an audience at the Verbier festival a couple of years ago, during a series of concerts devoted to Shchedrin's music.

In 1994 she wrote her memoirs. No ghost-written politenesses are on offer from her pen. This autobiography, now translated into English, is very like Plisetskaya on stage. The text seems torn from her heart. Her anger, her sense of injustice, her vehemence in affection as in hatred, and her reluctance to mince words, produce the same passion, the same flaming and even lurid colours. She gives an excoriating delineation of how artists suffered in the Soviet Union for the least infraction of those often unknown and unguessable rules of political favour and disfavour which conditioned every action.

It is a story marked by a compelling sincerity, as by swiftly vivid portraits of people she has met. (Nehru's "thin, aristocratic sandalwood fingers"; her meetings with Robert Kennedy, whom she spared the gift of a massive samovar, kindly provided by the KGB for reasons we can guess). I could never - audiences could never - resist being drawn into the imaginative world she created on stage. I remember in Paris that, after dancing in Bejart's brief tribute to Isadora Duncan that he made for her, she stood at the edge of the stage as we cheered, and gradually we all moved forward, nearer and nearer, to warm ourselves at her fire. Impossible not to. And so we must feel as we read this polemic, this justification for a massive talent.

The book is not without its imbalances, its over-loud protests. But it is a cry of protest from a great dancer, whose spirit was not broken by Soviet hypocrisy, by the exigencies and cruelties of communist opportunism. Ultimately, Plisetskaya triumphs, as she has triumphed as an artist from her very first years on the Bolshoi stage. She is a glorious ballerina - and she celebrates her birthday this month. I send you, Maya Mikhailovna, all my gratitude for your dancing, my admiration for your bravery, my devoted greetings. Shamefully, these memoirs have no index.