October 23, 2001
The Ballerina of the Century Recalls Soviet Oppression
By RICHARD EDER
the swans she danced so often — 800 performances of "Swan
Lake" and unnumbered renderings of the Dying Swan — Maya
Plisetskaya, one of the great ballerinas of the last century, mingled
beauty and fierceness. Her talent was not classical grace but
heart-stopping emotion. Galina Ulanova, her peer and contemporary,
floated with what seemed like the evasion of gravity. When Ms.
Plisetskaya hung in the air, seemingly motionless, it was not evasion
but sheer defiance.
Like swans when they approach the ends of their lives — so legend
has it — she has broken silence (she is in her mid-70's) to give
voice. The unpracticed writing in these memoirs is witty, eloquent,
angry and rambling by turns. She has much to be angry about and, as
the Bolshoi's prima ballerina assoluta for decades and celebrated
worldwide, quite a bit to be grateful for.
What Ms. Plisetskaya relates is not up to the dramatic torments
alternating with honors of Dmitri Shostakovich nor the frozen
precariousness of Boris Pasternak; much less the grimmer fates of Anna
Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and so many others. Stalin tossed his
artists on a griddle, teetering them to the edge, dropping some into
the flames, flipping others back. Ballet dancers and musical
performers teetered less dramatically in a lesser order of peril.
What "I, Maya Plisetskaya" shows is the lesser
purgatories they endured, not only under Stalin but also under his
successors. If fear lessened, arbitrary oppression remained, and
corruption, if anything, increased.
As Tim Scholl writes in a foreword: "The humiliations she and
other artists endured at the hands of government handlers and arts
bureaucrats challenge popular notions of the privileged lives of
Soviet artists. Always forced to beg — to travel, to prepare new
works, to be paid fairly — Plisetskaya and her colleagues more
closely resembled Russian serf artists of the 18th century than
cultural workers in a modern socialist state."
From the start Ms. Plisetskaya bore special vulnerability as well
as special protection. Her father lost his mine-director's post and
was arrested and executed after he hired a friend who had been
Trotsky's secretary; her mother was sent to a gulag in Kazakhstan. Her
mother's relatives, however, were officially honored artists. Not only
did they succeed in easing her imprisonment and later in obtaining her
release, but their influence allowed Maya to continue her studies in
the Bolshoi's ballet school as well.
As the daughter of a "traitor," Ms. Plisetskaya was never
free of official suspicions and curtailments; an innate rebelliousness
and independence did not help. Her star qualities showed early: a
triumphant performance in "Impromptu" at the Bolshoi
school's graduation concert; her breathtaking jetés in a minor
role in "Chopiniana" and a breakthrough performance in
"Raymonda" that earned fan letters and photos in the
magazines. "It seems I'd become famous."
From there on there was a curious combination of favor and
discrimination; her salary lagged for a while behind that of lesser
performers, and roles were arbitrarily denied her.
The situation eased when she was chosen to dance before Stalin and
Mao Zedong; and still more when Nikita S. Khrushchev and his
successors began inviting leaders from all over the world to Moscow.
There was the obligatory visit to the Bolshoi; all wanted to see Ms.
Plisetskaya do her swans. "What would the Soviet government have
done if Tchaikovsky hadn't written `Swan Lake'?" she wonders.
For six years, despite her success, she was barred from the
Bolshoi's trips abroad. Her family background and a friendship with a
British diplomat may have had something to do with it; also, possibly,
her splendid rudeness to her K.G.B. minder during an early trip to
India, and the sublime good time she had at dinner talking to
Jawaharlal Nehru while the K.G.B. man struggled vainly to listen in.
Her description of Nehru is a gem. Her dancer's eye noted his grace
as well as his wit. He was a fountain of legends about swans; and when
the pilaf was served, he "began to eat in a delectable way with
his thin, aristocratic sandalwood fingers." Inviting her to do
the same, he remarked that "eating this dish with a fork and
knife is like making love through a translator." Perhaps he was
— the translator "sat frozen like a mummy behind our
backs" — and perhaps she was responding. The K.G.B. man
glowered from across the table.
The memoirs are marked by flaring anger, a bristling sense of
injustice and a kind of wholehearted generosity. Sometimes her
denunciation is so protracted and unmodulated — as with Yuri
Grigorovich, the former longtime Bolshoi director — that she drowns
herself out. Her narrative winds, wanders and falters; she mentions at
the start deciding to do without the kind of interlocuting that Robert
Craft so memorably provided for Stravinsky. She could have used it.
There are matchless scenes, though. Noting Robert F. Kennedy's
interest, the K.G.B. urged her to cultivate it, and provided her with
an enormous samovar to give him; she declined. Leonid I. Brezhnev gave
her a lift home, pawed her drunkenly and serenaded her with "The
Broad Dnieper Roils and Moans."
For all its awkwardness the Plisetskaya memoir is a moving success.
Here is the woman, it proclaims, and we see her — not entirely
polished but overwhelming — as if she were dancing. There is an
explanation, touching in its uncertainty, of why in the hard years she
never defected. She knew Rodion Shchedrin, her husband, wanted to stay
in Russia. She felt it would betray the millions of Russians who loved
her. And finally — the dancer's truth — the Bolshoi stage. She
recalls her lifetime of entrances:
"I awaited my music, my cue with a shiver of joy, a feeling of
incomparable happiness spreading throughout my body. Three more bars.
Two more. One more. There. My music. I step out onto my stage. It was
a familiar creature, a relative, an animate partner. I spoke to it,
thanked it. Every board, every crack I had mastered and danced on. The
stage of the Bolshoi made me feel protected; it was a domestic