Sunday, November 4, 2001

She Did It Her Way
I, MAYA PLISETSKAYA, By Maya Plisetskaya, Translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis, Yale University Press: 386 pp., $35


     Maya Plisetskaya: Her father (a loyal communist) executed in the Stalin purges of the 1930s; her mother (a one-time silent film star) exiled to Asia; Jewish; close relatives in America; and perceived, always, as a rebel, a troublemaker and, worst of all, a potential defector. Oh, yes--she was also under-trained, her ballet schooling interrupted by the terrible traumas of her childhood. How, then, did this woman with so many strikes against her not only survive but prevail, becoming the Bolshoi's leading ballerina for decades, dancing on and on to celebrate her 47th anniversary on the Bolshoi stage and, at 76, still be going strong? At its best, her autobiography, "I, Maya Plisetskaya," is the fascinating story of how this artist of implacable will confronted and defied the Soviet regime--and eventually had her way.
     Russian dancers of the 20th century had three choices: get out, accept the regime and its restrictions while enjoying its favors or stay and struggle. Only Plisetskaya took that third route and triumphed. She was talented, of course, and wonderful looking, with her thin body, long legs and arms and flaming red hair. From the first she stood out: Hers was not a slow ascendancy; she was always headed for great things unless she self-destructed or was destroyed by others. She was partly protected by association with her mother's family, the Messerers, who constitute a dancing dynasty in Russia; and eventually she had the unconditional support of her husband, the composer Rodion Shchedrin.
     But all that was secondary: What drove her past all obstacles and hazards were her unbending determination and her refusal to do things any way but her own.
     She began as she meant to go on: "I was a willful child, and they called me neslukh, the 'not-listener."' And "Everything in me, in my nature, resisted 'socializing."' They want her to attend Komsomol meetings and learn about dialectical materialism? She goes twice, and that's it. Advisors want her to leave the KGB and the "vileness of the Bolsheviks" out of her book? "No, I won't change anything. I won't touch things up." She's always on the barricades; defiance is not only a principle and a tactic but also an essential element of her nature.
     Her credo: "I don't want to be a slave. I don't want people whom I don't know to decide my fate. I don't want a leash on my neck. I don't want a cage, even if it's a platinum one....I don't want to bow my head and I won't do it. That's not what I was born for." It's admirable, it's magnificent, but it's not very cozy; I would think it would be easier to be in love with her than to love her.
     The strongest parts of her book are, indeed, those that deal with the KGB and "the vileness of the Bolsheviks." Of course we have encountered this story many times before and in truly great books, like Nadezhda Mandelstam's "Hope Against Hope." But as with the Holocaust, each telling is different, and each is worth listening to.
     Plisetskaya's is unique in that her story is that of an artist who loathes her circumstances ("Endless suffering and humiliation fill my memory") yet overcomes them without (too much) compromise. And who chooses not to defect--a decision she provides a number of reasons for, ranging from pride in her position as prima ballerina at the Bolshoi to love for the Bolshoi Theater's stage. (Besides, she promised Khrushchev she wouldn't.)
     Nothing that was to follow compared in horror to what she witnessed when they took her father away. Maya was 11--"skinny, scared, not understanding what was going on." They came for him at dawn. "My mother, unkempt, pregnant with a big belly, weeping and clutching. My little brother screaming, rudely awakened. My father, white as snow, dressing with trembling hands. He was embarrassed. The neighbors' faces were remote. The witness, the blowsy janitor Varvara, with a cigarette between her lips, didn't miss a chance to suck up to the authorities: 'Can't wait for all of you bastards to be shot, you enemies of the people!"' And finally, "The last thing I heard my father say before the door shut behind him forever was, 'Thank God, they'll settle this at last."'
     When they sent her mother to Kazakhstan, all that stood between Maya and an orphanage was an aunt who took her in, somewhat grudgingly. But it was ballet that really saved her. She had great natural gifts--in particular a dazzling leap. ("Nature had not passed me over when it came to jumps.") What she lacked was solid technique. Just as she is wise and generous in her estimation of other dancers--particularly her sublime coeval and rival, Galina Ulanova--she is honest about her own deficiencies.
     In Paris, she tells us, referring to an overwhelming triumph (27 curtain calls) in "Swan Lake," her friends agree that "I had forced the audience to switch its interest from abstract technique to soul and plasticity. When I danced the finale of the second act, people's eyes were glued to the line of the swan's arms, the angle of the neck; no one noticed that my bourrees were not so perfect." She even reports that when she met Balanchine in New York, in the early 1960s, he said to her, "Being your own boss isn't bad. But, don't be angry, Maya, you need a good teacher." As usual, he had seen and understood everything.
     She was kept from the West for years--a matter of supreme frustration and rage--and when she was finally allowed to come, the conditions were onerous: not only unrelenting KGB watchdogs, but barely enough money for food; all earnings went back to the bosses in Russia. In 1959 she received $40 a performance, and on days when she didn't dance, "Zero." The corps de ballet got $5 a day.
     Bizarrely, before setting out for America, the touring dancers would stuff their luggage with food. Then, when their supplies ran out, "[c]at and dog food were particularly popular. Cheap and vitamin-rich. You felt very strong after animal food. We fried canine beefsteaks between two hotel irons." (When not munching canine beefsteaks, Plisetskaya was hobnobbing with the great, including Robert F. Kennedy, with whom she had a mystifying palship.)
     Despite being undertrained and underfed, she made an indelible impression here. Although, as she acknowledges, her fouettes were erratic, she was a superb Odile in the Black act of "Swan Lake," a cold and brilliant dominatrix. Her Odette, for me, was always more about being a bird than being a vulnerable captive princess, but "Swan Lake" remained her signature ballet: She danced it more than 800 times. Her Dying Swan likewise seemed to me more about undulant arms than about death. (I once saw her "die," then respond to the applause with a second "death" and then a third. Why not? It was all showiness. When Ulanova's swan died, she was dead.)
     But her passionate, flirtatious, swirling, seductive Kitri, in "Don Quixote," remains unparalleled. And her dramatic power in such Soviet pieces as "The Stone Flower" and "Spartacus" was incontestable, though all in the service of kitsch. (Does she realize that?) When she gets to commissioning ballets and ultimately choreographing her own, they're all diva vehicles: "Carmen," "Anna Karenina," "The Lady With a Dog." I don't think it ever occurred to her that she was more suited to some roles than to others. Only blinders--or undifferentiated ego--could have led her to write, "I have been endlessly asked why I didn't dance Giselle.... I could have done it, but something in me opposed it, resisted, argued with it. Somehow it just didn't work out." Plisetskaya as a fragile peasant girl betrayed in love? It's inconceivable--except to her.
     "I, Maya Plisetskaya" has the virtues of candor and directness, and it has a real story to tell. She may have her vanities, but what star doesn't? And how many stars have had to exhibit such an indomitable spirit? She insists that she wrote her book herself, and it reads as if she did--or, rather, as if she had dictated it into a tape machine. (It's as if she was her own ghostwriter.) In Antonina Bouis' energetic translation, she comes across as the same person we knew on the stage: glamorous, exciting, voracious. Larger than life. Not always pleasing but never to be ignored and certainly never to be trifled with. - - -
Robert Gottlieb, Former Editor of the New Yorker and Editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf, Is Dance Critic of the New York Observer

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times