Dance Magazine, Oct 2001 v75 i10 p60


I, Maya Plisetskaya. (Excerpt)

COPYRIGHT 2001 Dance Magazine, Inc.


Born in 1925, Maya Plisetskaya--ballerina, choreographer, international personality--joined the Bolshoi in 1943 but was held behind the Iron Curtain until 1959. Insistently creative and beloved by audiences, she survived purges and politics, dancing through her 50s and 60s, making first Odette/Odile and then Fokine's The Dying Swan her signature roles. Wife of composer Rodion Shchedrin for more than thirty-five years, she collaborated on ballets with Alfredo Alonso, Maurice Bejart, and Roland Petit, Here, in her own words, is her story, [] As this excerpt begins, Maya's father bas been taken by the police and his fate is unknown, and her pregnant mother, taken from the theater during intermission, has been sent to a prison camp for wives and children of arrested husbands. Maya now lives with her aunt, ballerina Sulamith Messerer, in Moscow.


Excerpted from I, Maya Plisetskaya, to be published in October 2001 by Yale University Press. Copyright [C] 2001 by Yale University. Reprinted by permission.


Chapter Ten--Tchaikovsky's Impromptu


Mother was released in April 1941, and she finally returned to Moscow with my little brother.... The whole family was waiting for her on the platform of Kazan Station, from which she had left all those years ago. A sea of tears. Hugging until we were dizzy. No end to the joy. They had released her early.


I was preparing for the next performance [at the Bolshoi school]. I wanted to show my mother that I had not wasted my time, that I had progressed. Mother, switching swiftly from her travels, started asking me about my ballet studies, what new works I had learned.


Her last year in Chimkent had not been easy. On one of her visits to the police, to check in, she was sent to a back room on some technicality. An imposing and pleasant-looking man awaited her. He asked about her health, her children, how the daughter who had visited her was doing....




"You must help us, it is important to report on the moods and conversations of those around you, what the exiled parents of your ballet students at the club think, who visits your landlord Isaac." She was supposed to do this in written form, neatly and clearly. Simply put, they wanted her to be a snitch.


They couldn't break Mother [when they questioned her] in Butyrki Prison ... and certainly the pleasant fellow got an implacable refusal.... An admirer appeared. Later, she figured out he was from the KGB.... He wanted to marry her and adopt all three of us. "Your husband, unfortunately, is no longer alive. I love you madly, I saw all of your films when I was free. You are the love of my life. And the children need a father." Mother sent him packing. She did not want to believe that Father had been [shot].... She waited her whole life ... jumped every time there was an unexpected peal of the doorbell, ring of the phone, or unfamiliar voice in the front hall. She never saw him again.


I wonder if I exaggerate the drama of my family? ... But it all happened It's all true.... I don't want to smooth the sharp angles or hide the nasty details. This is how my generation lived. I am its child. No better, no worse....


The school was preparing for its graduation concert. For the first time, this would be accompanied by the Bolshoi orchestra and held on the stage of its second theater.... The main performers were those graduating that year. It was a strong group. ... I danced the Tchaikovsky Impromptu in Yakobson's staging. The pas de trois was a very successful piece of choreography. My partners were Shvachkin and Evdokimov.


I've stopped writing, in order to sit, eyes shut, and recall that little ballet.... What a miracle the mechanism of human memory is. I'm often asked, "How do you remember all the moves and their order?" How do readers and actors remember poems, verse, hundreds of pages of prose text, roles, and monologues? I cannot explain how the body remembers the most complex choreographic text. There are times when you can keep an entire ballet with all its performers in your head for years. And sometimes you struggle to remember when the left goes, the left arm, the elbow in a variation you danced only yesterday. It's like a telephone number you've dialed a hundred times which suddenly is erased from your memory.... Explain to us, wise men, what memory is....


The Moscow audience was delighted by the number. Perhaps it was--dare I say it?--the concert's high point. Mother was in the audience, and I saw her happy eyes glowing in the first row of the parterre boxes. She was seeing me after our long separation on the stage of the second theater of the Bolshoi to the strains of the orchestra, conducted inspiredly by Yuri Fayer.... The audience applauded wildly, and we kept bowing and bowing, coming out from the curtain onto the ramp. She was happy. Asaf [Messerer, Maya's uncle], when he congratulated me, made a mocking face: "You bowed like an audience favorite--you should be more modest."


It is too late for modesty when the audience has accepted you and rewarded you for your successful work. It may have been that night that I first understood the higher value of bows. The ritual is very important. To this day I believe that the bows are a component of the performance. The audience must take away not only impressions of the dance but of the entire image of the dancer, a vignette framed by the grateful response to the audience for its recognition. The audience should get to keep the comet's tail. Forgive my bold comparison....


... I see that the memorable evening ... was particularly significant for me. That day I left my meek ballet childhood for an independent, adult, risky--but beautiful--professional life in ballet. At dawn the next day, war broke out.


Chapter Eleven: The War


I remember ... people huddled in the streets around loudspeakers broadcasting heroic music and giving the latest news.... Faces reflected anxiety and tension. Some were drunk. Even the most feckless realized that the business of war was killing people. And who lived and who died was the business of fate. Only now are the true figures being published on the victims of the terrible clash of two mighty nations. And here's one that stunned me: 97 percent of my countrymen born in 1923, two years before me, were killed or missing. Only 3 percent survived.


I was naive, even though deep inside I felt a sinking sensation. We assured ourselves that the war would be over quickly. ... Air raids started, and the sound of bowling sirens.... The Germans bombed Moscow at night. The whole city was plunged in blackest darkness. They painted the Kremlin, Red Square, and the Bolshoi Theater. Camouflage. Protective zeppelins floated in the sky--traps for German bombers.... In the theater and school we learned to decline a new noun: evacuation. ... How she [Mita] managed to get hold of four tickets (two children's) for seats on the Moscow-Sverdlovsk train I'll never know. But get them she did. Mother, my two brothers, and I ... managed to leave Moscow in late September, long before the panic of October 17, 1941, when the Germans were at the gate of Moscow.


In Sverdlovsk we were put up in the [three-room] apartment of Paduchev, an engineer, ... the Party Executive Committee placed yet another family from the Ukraine: four women, four generations. The engineer--a kind and timid man--huddled with his family of five in the third, far room. So we lived like this: 4 x 4 x 6, almost like a soccer formation. But that wasn't the limit. One morning two more were squeezed into Paduchev's apartment. The engineer's uncle and his two-ton wife.... You'll find it hard to believe, but we lived in peace, helping one another, holding places in kilometer-long lines, lending little loaves of bread or a three-ruble note until payday....


There were lines for everything. Without exception. People stood, stood, and stood, begging leave to go off for a bit, coming back and standing some more, complaining, grumbling, and worrying when numbers were called out: 276--here; 265--went off somewhere. Cross her off! ... My feet got desperately chilled from standing in lines for hours. Ballet was forgotten.... I found support in going to the theater.... You may ask how I got to the theater. Long lines and the cheapest balcony seat. Tickets were incredibly inexpensive. In fact, until quite recently, front-row seats at the Bolshoi were only 3 rubles 50 kopecks.


When tomatoes at the markets were 10 to 15 rubles a kilogram. So there's the choice. Have a salad of green market tomatoes--or go to the Bolshoi four times. In Sverdlovsk I chose food for the soul.


Mita's forecasts were wrong. The Bolshoi was evacuated to Kuibyshev, and the ballet school went to a small town, Vasilsursk, on the Volga [not Sverdlovsk]. This accidental mistake cost me dearly. An entire year, from 15 and one-half to 16 and one-half, I spent without working at ballet. That was my year for standing in line. Gradually, I was overtaken by panic. Another year like that and I could kiss ballet goodbye.


I noticed an item in the paper that said that the remaining members of the troupe in Moscow had given a premiere on the Bolshoi's Second Stage. The Bolshoi itself was closed. Then we heard that part of the school had remained behind, too. Studies continued. It was like a bolt of electricity. I had to go to Moscow. Like Chekhov's three sisters, I kept repeating to myself, "To Moscow, to Moscow, to Moscow..." But how? You needed a special pass. We had no influential friends. Going to offices trying to explain why and what for would be a waste of time. Who would listen to some girl about ballet, training, physical conditioning, teachers?


I decided to take a desperate step--to make my way into Moscow illegally. Mother was in a panic and tried to talk me out of it. "They'll pick you up and arrest you."


"Let them!" I responded. "Time's running out." ... It wasn't easy getting a train ticket. It was expensive, and we had almost no money. And you couldn't buy one without a pass. The hand of Providence led me [to] the chess player Rokhlin, who offered to help. He was married to the ballerina Valentina Lopukhina, who would extend a helping hand to me a few years later, too. Both are no longer with us....


The train took five days.... The whole time I pondered whether to get out at the stop before Moscow and walk the rest of the way. Or to risk it all, counting on the crowds to conceal me. I repeat, had no pass allowing me into Moscow I decided to take the gamble. And I won. I attached myself to a limping old man, carrying his bag, which pleased him greatly, and his sincere attention helped me slip past the military patrol at the station doors. And--I was in Moscow.


Taking several trolleys, I reached Mita's apartment ... Luckily, Mita herself opened the door.... We talked all night and in the morning we went to the school building on Pushechnaya. My heart was beating as if I had just completed a difficult solo variation. People were happy to see me. No one asked how I had returned to a closed city, whether I had a pass, whether Mother was with me.


Maria Mikhailovna Leontyeva (E.P. Gerdt [Plisetskaya's regular teacher] had been evacuated) taught the final, graduating class. She was also a former dancer of the Maryinsky Theater. As I write, I am amazed to see that all my sources lie in St. Petersburg, even though by birth and character I am Muscovite. Maria Mikhailovna agreed to take me in, not worried about my lost year.


"You'll have to work like the devil to make up for lost time. Your gifts will help you. I believe in you. Get back in shape!"


I attacked my work fiercely. I liked being at the barre, doing my assigned combinations, seeing myself in the mirror. I had grown taller, ... but I had grown gaunt. No one would think I was over 14.


Leontyeva was a placid, attentive teacher. She knew my family history and showed me warmth and compassion. On the Maryinsky stage, M.M. had danced every solo part--duos, trios, every solo fairy. She knew her ballet, and her tenacious gaze caught all our mistakes. A particular concern of hers was that the back be professionally straight.... I worked with Leontyeva for more than six months. Graduation exams were coming up. Naturally, we couldn't even consider a stage or an orchestra. We were supposed to dance ... a solo variation, and also show ourselves in the general class. M.M. and I prepared the variation of the Queen of the Dryads from Don Quixote.


The examination day came. It was late March 1943. The war continued. Mother was still in Sverdlovsk. Everyone was expecting the second front to open. They blamed the Allies for delaying.... A lot of people crowded into Room 6. The commission sat at a narrow table, familiar faces, tendu, battements, center, leaps, fingers ... It was all extremely businesslike, without flowers or ovations.... My turn came. My variation. I was strung tight as a bow. Ready. And suddenly I heard the wrong music. The pianist got the order of the variations mixed up. I did not budge. "Not my music" played on diligently and passionately. I stood there. There was a stir. Leontyeva stopped the concertmaster with an imperious cry.


"Play the Dryad. Plisetskaya is dancing the leader."


Everything went smoothly. I passed the exam. I got an "A." School was behind me. The war went on. But now I faced my own war. For my place in life.