Books and Arts

The Undying Swan

By

I.

I, Maya Plisetskaya
By, Maya Plisetskaya
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis
Yale University Press
386 p. $35

In 1934, Maya Plisetskaya was admitted to the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow. She was seven years old. The Bolshoi Theater was a cultural arm of the Stalinist state, and the "great father" took a personal interest in it. The state would nurture little Maya's talent, that she might one day exemplify the artistic achievements of the first socialist nation. In 1937, this same state arrested (and eventually executed) Maya's father and deported her mother to a camp in Kazakhstan. Before the purges, her father had been proclaimed a national hero for his work on behalf of the Soviet coal industry, and was presented with one of the first Soviet-manufactured cars by Molotov himself. He was also a Jew. Faced with terror, war, and dislocation, Maya took refuge in ballet and the Bolshoi Theater. She fulfilled her promise: in 1943 she was invited to join the Bolshoi company, and before long the little girl whose father Stalin had murdered had become the de facto prima ballerina of the Soviet Union.

Plisetskaya danced for Stalin and Ribbentrop ("The ring he wore sparkled so brightly that it was blinding! Whatever happened to this ring when he was hanged in Nuremberg?"); for Tito, Nehru, Gandhi, Nasser, Prince Sihanouk, and "big cheeked" Mao Zedong. She was invited to dance at Stalin's seventieth-birthday celebration in 1949, and was named People's Artist of the USSR in 1959. She was awarded the Lenin Prize in 1964. Khrushchev complained that he saw so many performances of her Swan Lake that his dreams were haunted by "white tutus and tanks all mixed up together." On television, she danced her way into millions of living rooms and became a household name across the Soviet bloc. She was named "Hero of Socialist Labor" in 1985, and last year Vladimir Putin gave her Russia's highest civil honor, the medal for service to the Russian state, second degree. "For my generation," affirmed the Soviet critic Gennady Smakov, "she was Ballet itself."

In the West, she became (with Galina Ulanova) the icon of Soviet ballet. In 1959 she captured New York, and she continued to tour the capitals of Europe and America for the next forty years. She danced for Kennedy, Adenauer, Mitterrandthe list sweeps the political landscape of the cold war.She was a cultural emissary (the dancer who did not defect), a glamour girl (Bobby Kennedy had "a thing" for her), a ballet superstar. Richard Avedon took her picture, and she worked with Halston and Pierre Cardin.

In addition to various Bolshoi tours, Plisetskaya served as artistic director to the Rome Opera Ballet in 1983, and from 1987 to 1990 she led the National Ballet of Madrid. Maurice Bejart and Roland Petit choreographed works for her. In 1987, Martha Graham invited her to appear with her company, along with Nureyev and Baryshnikov. (In her memoir she recalls noting the T-shirts: "Martha, Rudy, Misha, and me, just like Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin!"). And in 1996 she danced (on pointe at age seventy-one) to critical acclaim in her own "Plisetskaya Gala" at City Center in New York City. Countless articles portrayed her as outspoken, opinionated, and daring. She danced with fierce energy, technical virtuosity, and utter abandon. She wore "bandit" perfume and did not brook fools. She was big and brash as only the Bolshoi could be. It was all but decreed, and for once East and West were in agreement: Maya Plisetskaya was Soviet ballet.

 

Or was she? Many dancers and historians would argue that the authentic classical ballet resided at the Kirov Theater in Leningrad. The Kirov, it is said, sheltered Marius Petipa's classical style against the banalities of Socialist Realism. Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, Mikhail Baryshnikov: all were trained at the Kirov. What better evidence that Leningrad (along with New York, London, and Paris) ranked as a center for twentieth-century classical ballet? Not an artistic mecca, perhaps, but a place where dancers were carefully and lovingly schooled in the Russian classics as they were nowhere else in the world. Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet, by contrast, was gauche; its loud, unpolished artistry offered no more than a crude imitation of the Kirov's restrained and aesthetically elevated style. Likewise Plisetskaya, whose "ostentatious disregard of tradition" and "bacchic temperament" (dixit Natalia Makarova) made her an object of some scorn in the hallowed halls of the Leningrad theater.

The Bolshoi, it has been suggested, prostituted classical style to pompous Soviet grandeur. Its productions were big and overwrought: affairs of state, not of art. This emphasis on the nineteenth-century, Russian, and European roots of Kirov classicism, as opposed to the twentieth-century, Soviet, and political qualities of the Bolshoi Theater, has a certain cold war appeal. But now that the wall is down, there may be good reason to have another look at what really happened to ballet under Soviet rule.

 

II.

The distinctionand the tensionbetween the Leningrad and Bolshoi theaters predates Plisetskaya. The Maryinsky Theater (re-named the Kirov in 1934) originated in the court of Peter the Great, whose Westernizing impulses first brought ballet to Russian soil. It was royal entertainment:conservative, polite, and very French. When the Parisian ballet master Marius Petipa settled in Russia in 1847, he found his home at the Maryinsky. It was there that he (with Tchaikovsky) transformed the French and Italian Romantic ballet into an imperial Russian style, culminating in Sleeping Beauty in 1890 and Swan Lake in 1895.

The Bolshoi, by contrast, had ragtag roots. Originally an orphanage that offered ballet lessons to discipline and to distract its children, it later joined with various private theaters until Czar Alexander I finally awarded it imperial status in 1806. Unfettered by court obligations, it was always more freewheeling and experimental than the Maryinsky. It drew heavily on folk forms, staged Pushkin poems, mounted ballets by the (very un-French) Italian master of mime Salvatore Vigano, and created a ballet version of Auber's banned opera La Muette de Portici. (The opera, about the Neapolitan revolution in 1647, had sparked the Belgian revolution in 1830.)

In 1898, the Bolshoi Ballet hired Alexander Alexeyevich Gorsky to mount Petipa's Sleeping Beauty.Gorsky had been trained at the Maryinsky and was steeped in Petipa's classicism. In Moscow, however, he set about re-staging the great Petipa ballets with a strong modernist twist. Gorsky wanted to take the fairy tale out of the classics and render them in real, psychologically convincing, Stanislavsky-like colors. He hired the modernist designer Konstantin Alexeyevich Korovin to re-do the sets and the costumes. He added complicated passages of mime and facial expression to the choreography, and broke the linear, symmetrical corps de ballet into a haphazard crowd. He changed the setting for Giselle from a sweet provincial village to an overheated town in the grips of the French Revolution. "Be a temperamental wench," he wrote to the ballerina who would dance the role of Giselle, "don't dance on pointe (too sugary). Jump like a young little goat and really go mad. Die with your legs apart, not placing one on the other." The Bolshoi penchant for histrionics was not a Bolshevik invention.

But Lenin's revolution in 1917 put the lid on this kind of experimentation. The feverish modernism that swept through both theaters after World War I was gradually squelched in the name of classicism. Anatoly Vasilievich Lunacharsky, Lenin's commissar for culture, believed that "aristocratic" arts such as ballet were the rightful heritage of the workers. He fought hard against the "revolutionaries" who insisted that ballet give way to physical culture, gymnastics, and folk dance. For the Bolshoi, this was disastrous. Gorsky left, and what remained was watery political theater masquerading as a newly politicized classicism. The best example is Vasily Dmitrievich Tikomirov's ballet The Red Poppy, which was produced in 1927 and pitted "good" Chinese Communists (dancing as red poppy flowers) against "bad" (Charlestoning and waltzing) Western imperialists. Workers flocked to performances, but leftist critics reviled it as bourgeois ballet in a red cloak: "One doesn't want to look at living flowers! In 1927! In Moscow! In the first revolutionary ballet!" Perhaps not; but the ballet became a Soviet classic, and it remained in the Bolshoi repertory until 1960.

 

Meanwhile the Leningrad theater flourished. Its classical tradition found new support, and those who wanted to innovate gradually left the institution or were expelled. In the early 1920s, the choreographer Fyodor Vasilievich Lopukhov painstakingly restored Petipa's great ballets (which had fallen into a state of dowdy disarray), and a young teacher named Agrippina Vaganova quietly trained a generation of young ballerinas in a pure, lyrical Russian style. The nineteenth-century classics were coddled and protected at the Maryinsky until the early 1930s, when Stalin's "Socialist Realism" changed everything.

For ballet, Socialist Realism meant several things. First, choreography had to have a story about heroic workers, innocent women, and courageous men. Second, "formalism" was forbidden. This meant no abstract dances structured by musical concerns, and no allegorical or symbolic dances that "disguised" pure movement in "meaning." These precepts were fully articulated in a diatribe published in 1936 in Pravda titled "Ballet Falsehood." The ostensible purpose of the article was to censor the ballet Bright Stream, one of Lopukhov's experiments in bringing classical vocabulary to bear on contemporary issues. With a score by Dmitri Shostakovich, Bright Stream was a purportedly "joyous" celebration of life on a Cossack collective farm. But Pravda accused Lopukhov of portraying real Soviet people as ballet "dolls" and "tinsel peasants" from a "pre-revolutionary candy box."

Shostakovich was also censored, but this was nothing new. Stalin had stunned Moscow the month before when he angrily walked out of a performance of Shostakovich's popularly acclaimed opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Pravda dutifully published a scorching denunciation of "formalism," called "Muddle Instead of Music," which became the de facto manifesto of Socialist Realism applied to music. "Ballet Fraud" was an addendum. Lopukhov had curated the classics, but he was also deeply interested in pure movement, gymnastics, and folk dance idioms. For this he lost his job. Stalin's point was plain: rid ballet of all experimentation. Restrict it to uplifting stories that do not refer to any specific contemporary issue, however "Soviet." The narrative must be clear. Loose steps unattached to the drama would be deemed subversive.

It was in this hostile environment that Agrippina Vaganova thrived. Vaganova is a legendary figure in classical ballet. Born in 1879, she worked with Petipa and performed at the Maryinsky until 1916. She began teaching in 1921 and became the single most important artistic force in Soviet ballet until her death in 1951. When Lopukhov was ousted for his modernist impulses, she replaced him. From Stalin's point of view, Vaganova had a good pedigree: she was a dyed-in-the-wool classicist. She had stood against Mikhail Fokine, Tamara Karsavina, and the "revolutionary" vanguard at the Maryinsky in 1905, and she had been a strong supporter of Lunacharsky after the revolution. Best of all, she saw no contradiction between classicism and Socialist Realism, proclaiming that the 1930s represented "the new spring of our ballet." In 1934, she published Fundamentals of the Classic Dance, which became a classic treatise on ballet technique. The book is universally credited with systematizing and codifying the Russian style.

What was this style? Vaganova emphasized clarity and strength. This did not just mean powerful legs and feet. Her dancers had backs to be reckoned with, epaulement and port de bras that were generous, lush, and beautifully exaggerated. She fine-tuned physical coordination so deeply that even the most awkward steps appeared effortless, graceful, natural. Most importantly, she insisted that each movement be infused with "meaning." Natalia Makarova, one of Vaganova's most articulate admirers, tells of being taught to "eat up" a movementinternalize it, give it a physical soul and substance.

Makarova, who was trained at the Kirov and defected in 1970, was surprised to find that Western dancers took a "purely rational approach" to steps (skill and lots of it) and then tried to graft "meaning" on top. For those trained in the Vaganova method, by contrast, movements do not exist without a psychological or emotional impulse. Technical skill is not just masterful physical execution, it is a way of thinkinga set of tools that the dancer uses to chisel movement according to precise emotional and stylistic specifications. This emphasis on dramatic content is not accidental, but directly related to the context of Socialist Realism. Vaganova's great contribution was to fuse classical precision with the prevailing Stalinist aesthetic without compromising art. She carried Russian classicism into the twentieth century by creating a universal, humanist "school" out of the wooden categories of Socialist Realism.

Galina Ulanova, Vaganova's most famous protegee, went a step further. Ulanova made her debut at the Kirov in 1928. Her career took off with the 1934 production of The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, and she soon became the reigning ballerina of the Kirov Theater (as well as a member of the Leningrad Soviet of Worker Deputies and later the Moscow City Soviet). Ulanova's dancing was heavenly. She embodied everything that Vaganova taught: elegant, effortless movements infused with emotion at every turn. In her Dying Swan, the spirit of the bird breaks like a brittle stick with a single bend at the elbow. Her Giselle captures a thousand human experiences in a simple movement. As she holds an imaginary bunch of flowers we see a lover's bouquet, a baby cradled, an arm supporting an injured soulall in a split second. Her performances in Giselle, Swan Lake (especially the white swan), The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, and Romeo and Juliet are still definitive.

 

But Ulanova did more than exemplify Vaganova's teachings. Consciously or not, she veered away from the diamond-hard imperial tradition of Petipa and reached back to early nineteenth-century French Romanticism. Notice that Ulanova's most famous roles were the title character of Giselle (which was choreographed in Paris in 1841), the white swan of Swan Lake, the fainting virginal girl in Bakhchisarai. She made her debut in Chopiniana, Fokine's long-skirted tribute to the great French Romantic ballerina Marie Taglioni, to whom Ulanova was often compared. For reasons of their own, the French Romantics were also deeply suspicious of the aristocratic origins of classical ballet. The grand stories, the etiolated manners, and the regal gestures of king and court had gone out with the French Revolution, and were replaced by ballets that glorified peasants (Giselle) and sanctified pure, idealized women (La Sylphide). The French Romantics invented the spiritually tinged, light as air (but strong as an ox) style that Ulanova embodied.

The style that Vaganova traced and Ulanova defined, in sum, was marked by a radical retreat into the past. They did not expand the classical tradition, they circumscribed and elevated a particular aspect of it. Nor did they "preserve" Petipa. Instead they tunneled back to a small but important corner of the nineteenth century, and "forgot" all that was aristocratic and imperial about Russian ballet. This was the legacy of Socialist Realism in dance. This was the famed Kirov "school."

When the war ended, and in part because of the war, Leningrad lost its cultural supremacy. As Stalin further tightened the reins of power in Moscow, the Bolshoi gained influence and prestige. When Plisetskaya joined the company in 1943, the Bolshoi stood poised to emerge from the Kirov's shadow, where it had languished since the 1920s. For the first time since Gorsky, there was a chance that the more rebellious and bombastic branch of Russian classicism might re-assert its importance and offer a viable artistic alternative to the Kirov's dominant lyricism. Yet the weight of the Kirov was still strong.Ulanova moved to the Bolshoi in 1944 and was its senior ballerina until her retirement in 1962. Would her clearly articulated and enormously popular style prevail? Or would there be other but equally compelling voices? Vaganova and Ulanova were hard to argue with. But Maya Plisetskaya had the talent and the audacity to try.

 

III.

If Ulandova was Leningrad, Plisetskaya was a woman of Moscow. She had "no schooling" (that is, no Vaganova training), no tradition, "no beliefs," and a childhood bloodied by the twentieth century.She was the next generation, born and raised in the Soviet system.

Until now, we have known little about her. The literature is shockingly sparse: sweet-talking Soviet cliches, scattered interviews, and the occasional (and mostly dotty) paragraph in books surveying Soviet culture. Now we have the English translation of Plisetskaya's autobiography, and it is an enormously important document, both for the history of ballet and for the study of art under communism. (What a pity, for this reason, that there is no index, videography, bibliography, or chronology, and only the skimpiest of introductions.)

The good news is that Plisetskaya really wrote this book. Her voice is strong, unedited, and impassioned. The book is a testimony as much as a life story: "My first desire was to restore the truth.The truth of my own life. And through my life to tell how ballet artists lived in the first socialist nation.In a country that was `ahead of the entire planet' in the dance business." It is a brave book, too, not so much for what it tells about the indignities of life under communism (that part of her story is not new), but for its blind, honest style.

Plisetskaya's text breaks down when she cannot remember or does not understand, and she never mends the narrative in the interest of coherence. The flood of near-inarticulate ranting as she describes her mother's arrest, for example, does some justice to the horror of that experience. That evening she and her mother had gone to the Bolshoi together. They had stopped on the way to buy flowers for her aunt Sulamith, who was performing. But when the curtain fell and the applause began, her mother was nowhere to be seen. "I struggle now to remember how I ended up that evening at the theater all alone. Without mother. With a big bouquet of Crimean mimosas." She blames herself: was she so "lost" in her own thoughts that she failed to notice that they had been separated? When had it happened? How? "It's a total blank."

In another chilling passage, Plisetskaya admits that in the end she was "grateful" that she at least escaped the worst. "They" left her alone, "they" allowed her to dance. "They" didn't put her in an orphanage. "They" didn't kill her, or send her to Vorkuta, Magadan, or Auschwitz. In Plisetskaya's furious and confused pain, Soviet and German atrocities merge. They are indistinguishable horrors that she, by sheer dint of fate, was spared.

Plisetskaya's taste for detail is excruciating, entirely appropriate, and not without a sense of the ridiculous. We learn about Soviet dancers on tour in New York with a $5-a-day per diem frying dog-food steaks between shirt irons at the Governor Clinton Hotel on Seventh Avenue; of the hack work she took on as an honored Bolshoi artist, donning a feathered costume on her nights off and performing serial Dying Swans at various Moscow venues. We hear about the "bovine and rhino-like" Party wives who hated her for her graceful figure; and about her shy embarrassment as Khrushchev embraced her when she returned from her first tour to the West in 1959 ("Good girl, coming back.Not making me look like a fool. You didn't let me down"); and about Brezhnev offering her a ride after a performance and cooing "The Broad Dnieper Roils and Moans" as he pawed at her knee.

Artistically, Plisetskaya quickly distinguished herself from Ulanova and the Vaganova school. She admired Vaganova and had received much of her early training at the hands of the Maryinsky ballerina Elizabeta Pavlovna Gerdt. But in spite of this exposure to the Leningrad tradition, she found her artistic home with the veteran Bolshoi teacher Asaf Messerer. There were family reasons for this choice: Messerer was her uncle, and had taken in her brother when her parents were arrested. But it was his muscular, vigorous approach to classical technique that made Plisetskaya a loyal follower, and she studied with him daily for most of her career. Messerer's own career had started before the revolution, when he worked with Gorsky, Mordkin, and other Russian modernist choreographers. In the early 1920s, he was involved with the politically experimental "Dramatic Ballet" company in Moscow, but he eventually settled at the Bolshoi, where he performed, choreographed, and taught from 1921 until his death in 1992. For Plisetskaya, he was a living link to the Bolshoi's pre-revolutionary past.

As a performer, Plisetskaya excelled in the hard-edged Petipa-Gorsky classics that Ulanova eschewed:Raymonda, the black swan in Swan Lake, Kitri in Don Quixote. She never danced Giselle ("something in me opposed it, resisted, argued with it"), but instead played the iron-willed Queen of the Wilis to Ulanova's lilting maiden. She was also the corrupt, seductive harem girl to Ulanova's "good" Maria in The Fountain of Bakhchisarai. The young Plisetskaya was beefy and strong, with thick legs and a Rubenesque build. When she spun triumphantly out of a pirouette and flung her leg and arms to the side in the famous black swan pas de deux, she was declaring victory: take that.

42n1.jpg

Maya Plisetskaya in Raymonda, 1949

Her movements were trenchantly argued, unyielding, and never polite. It was Plisetskaya who, as Kitri in Don Quixote, first arched defiantly and kicked the back of her head in grand jete. The kick is now standard issue. Her classical technique was formidable, not so much because of her strength and her skill, but because her body positions were architectonic in their clarity. When she took her pose in Raymonda, the anatomical rails of classical ballet crossed her back and moved down her spine with perfect inevitability. You trusted her technique even when it failed. Films of Plisetskaya's early work give the impression of a young woman throwing herself fiercely into steps, abandoning herself to movement in ways that few dancers dare. In this sharp light, Ulanova's carefully considered purity takes on the pale glow of piety. Plisetskaya was flagrant and often moved with questionable taste.But you could love her for her garish indifference: she was unpretentious, refreshing, direct.

Much of Plisetskaya's effect lay in her big, manly hands. She held her palms wide open and never arranged her fingers in artful flower-like poses as most dancers are trained to do. Her hands grabbed, held, gripped, trailed, and flicked. They seemed to carry, and to balance, her whole body. Plisetskaya is interested in hands. She speaks with love and awe of her father's beautiful hands. She imagines that they tortured him by breaking his knuckles. She seems to know the soulful importance of hands in ways that make one think of Michelangelo or Rodin.

For all of her iconoclasm, though, Plisetskaya did claim a line of aesthetic descent. In 1944, her aunt Sulamith taught her a version of Mikhail Fokine's Dying Swan. Fokine first choreographed this short solo in 1905 for the young Anna Pavlova. "As I looked upon this thin, fragile Pavlova," he later wrote, "I thought she was just made for the part." He meant the ballet to be "a poetic image, a symbol of the perpetual longing for life by all mortals." Plisetskaya was hardly the frail and yearning type, but this ballet became her signature piece, and she danced it hundreds of times all over the world.

Her Dying Swan was not a delicate, broken-winged creature, but an agitated, asymmetrical, eagle-like bird. She did not slowly weaken, surrender, and fold into a gentle heap, like Pavlova (and Ulanova).She remained energetic to the end, insisting on the unjust claims that death makes on physical vitality. Her movements are forced, required, imposed. By identifying herself with The Dying Swan and up-ending the traditional meaning of the piece, Plisetskaya allied herself with Diaghilev's modernist project and the willful, free-spirited Pavlova. But she also announced thatin their spiritshe would break with them. She would go her own way. "Let me reiterate," she asserts in her autobiography, "I was independent."

 

The artistic possibilities of her early dancing were infinite and hugely exciting. Plisetskaya had split the forms of ballet wide openbut she had done it from the inside. She did not deform the tradition, she merely pushed it to the nth degree. The implications for classicism promised to be interesting and far-reaching. Nothing was in the waynot even Ulanova, who supported her advances. The political authorities were also pleased: Plisetskaya's bold style fit perfectly with the ethos of victory and national pride of the immediate postwar years. The field was wide open.Innovation was more than a possibility; it seemed inevitable.

But it wasn't. Plisetskaya had no sooner reached the helm than she was struck down by politics. In 1948, when Zhdanov issued his infamous decrees reasserting Socialist Realism and condemning artists from Akhmatova to Shostakovich, Plisetskaya's career also came to a screeching halt. Her family history made her a natural target: she was publicly humiliated and excoriated for not attending political meetings. Roles were taken away, privileges rescinded. Worst of all, she was categorized as "non-exportable," and allowed to tour only within the Soviet bloc or to points east (such as India). This was a kind of artistic death. Tours to the West conferred prestige, power, and fame (not to mention suitcases of material goods). Without the imprimatur of the Western press, she would not be taken seriously in Moscow. She would become a provincial artist, consigned to sweaty bus tours, exclusively for local consumption.

And so Plisetskaya became obsessed with foreign travel. She besieged officials, wrote letters of carefully worded "repentance," complained loudly in front of admiring foreign dignitaries, dressed inappropriately at public functionsanything to attract official attention. She got it: her own personal KGB watchdog. From this point on Plisetskaya saw every ballet, performance, and role as a political battle: "Who'll get whom!"

Perhaps her greatest "victory" came in 1956, when the KGB insisted that she be prevented from touring with the Bolshoi to London. Plisetskaya's "revenge" performance of Swan Lake in Moscow was, by her own account, among the best she ever gave. All Moscow came, including the "colorless, bedbug face of a eunuch, Serov [head of the KGB].... I wanted to let the authorities have it. Let Serov and his wifie burst their gall bladders. Bastards!" Every move she made was for himthat is, against him. When the curtain came down on the first act, the crowd exploded. KGB toughs muffled applauding hands and dragged people out of the theater kicking, screaming, and scratching. But the show went on, and by the end of the evening the government thugs had retreated, unable (or unwilling) to contain the public enthusiasm. The next morning, the authorities summoned Plisetskaya.She had won.

 

Maybe they would listen to her now? Maybe they would allow her to go abroad? In 1959, Khrushchev personally authorized her participation in the Bolshoi tour to New York. In his memoirs, he proudly recalls his decision to make an example of Plisetskaya: his advisers all warned that she might defect, but he insisted that "open" borders were an important proof of communism. If Plisetskaya returned, she would be living evidence that artists worked in the Soviet Union because they chose to work there; and because they understood that in the West artists were slaves abused by the rich. If she defected, then so be it. The country would be better off without people "who don't deserve to be called scum." To Khrushchev's immense satisfaction, Plisetskaya behaved herself perfectly, danced to the hilt, and came back without so much as a whimper.

What followed is sadly predictable. She settled in. She got stuff: two imported cars, a chauffeur, a lovely apartment, a dacha in a fashionable area close to Moscow, furs, designer clothing, and all of the accoutrements of foreign travel. But the battles continued, and she was never allowed to forget that her artistic and material privileges could be revoked at a moment's notice. She traveled, but not "freely." Each foreign engagement had to be approved, forms filled out, humiliations endured. She was allowed to dance, but the range for experimentation and new work was strictly limited and subject to censorship. The systematic intrusion of politics into art was insidious. "They" got into her head, and she increasingly measured artistic challenge by the strength of official resistance: "Would they really allow this?" Year after year, page after page, the refrain becomes depressing.

Far more serious was the artistic cost that was exacted when Plisetskaya turned her talent into a weapon wielded against apparatchiks. Films of her performances in the late 1960s and 1970s show an increasingly defiant, stark, one-dimensional dancer. Movements that were once flush and vibrant are harder, more tight-lipped, and uncompromising. Her own account of these years presents the reader with a detailed study of artistic passion methodically smothered by political calculation. Ballet had become a fight, not an art.

 

Plisetskaya did try. She was not a dissident (she cared too little for politics and too much for ballet), but she was a lifelong upstart. She quite rightly stood against the egotistical leadership of Yuri Nikolaievich Grigorovich (a "tiny Stalin"), whose mindless heel-stomping ballets earned him official sanction as director of the Bolshoi from 1964 to 1995. Grigorovich, who came from a family of circus performers, was trained at the Vaganova school and danced with the Kirov as a demi-caractere dancer. When he came to the Bolshoi, he made grand, mostly empty statements about creating psychologically deep ballets in which the action would be danced rather than acted or mimed. He would take up Gorsky's mantle, he said, and make ballet psychological, male, and realistic. (This was a grotesque misrepresentation of Gorsky, who was interested in mime and a wide variety of theatrical traditions.)

Grigorovich was nothing more than a third-rate talent writ large by Soviet state funding. His ballets were over-produced folk spectacles spliced with heavy doses of unconvincing melodrama. Not surprisingly, Grigorovich also had the cunning instincts of a petty dictator: he seemed to know that his own work would never survive comparison, and he worked hard to eliminate and to prohibit work by other choreographers. The Bolshoi became a Grigorovich fortress. Plisetskaya and a coterie of her followers argued loudly for the importance of outside influences, but to no avail.

Marginalized, Plisetskaya turned to her own resources, and in the course of the 1970s and 1980s she became an impressive one-woman show. In 1967, she mounted a production called Carmen Suite, by the Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso, with music (after Bizet) by her husband, the composer Rodion Shchedrin. The minister of culture, Yekaterina Furtseva, originally approved (thinking that the work would be another Don Quixote), but she was later aghast: "You have turned a heroine of the Spanish people into a whore." Plisetskaya stood firm: "Carmen will die when I die." (Her identification with Carmen was unabashed: "She's my kind of womanCarmen is me.") She won again, sort of: she changed the most explicit steps and the show went on. Yet the ballet is silly, not sexy; and the dull-witted choreography makes Plisetskaya look even more forced and superficial than ever.

She also tried to expand her horizons by working with Western choreographers. Louis Aragon, the well-known French Communist writer, sent a personal note to Brezhnev to arrange for her collaboration with the choreographer Roland Petit ("would they allow it?"). She danced with Bejart, who choreographed Isadora for her in 1976. Yet this exposure to European choreographers does not seem to have helped. She lost weight, sanded her technical edges, and began to look positively generic. She also choreographed ballets for herself (Anna Karenina, 1972; Seagull, 1980; Lady with a Dog, 1985) that were pretentious, arty, and uninteresting. Plisetskaya needed ideas that were not her own. She needed to be told, taught, pushed, exposed. But she was not, and the result was a steady descent into mediocrity.

 

Why did Plisetskaya not defect? She had numerous opportunities, and would have been in good company: Nureyev left in 1961, Makarova in 1970, Baryshnikov in 1974, Godunov (Plisetskaya's partner) in 1979. She admits that she could have arranged things so that she and her husband left together, since he, too, had an international career. (Indeed, they now live in Munich.) She seems confused by her own hesitation. She regrets not leaving ("Was I a fool? I was. I am crying over spilt milk now"), but she knows that she could not have left. She calls it "conscience," and explains that she could not bear the thought of giving Serov or Khrushchev the satisfaction of saying, "You see, we were right not to trust that dishonest con artist."

And she continues: "Staying in the West meant deceiving people who believed in your decency and sincerity. Without deceit, you can't run away. I really didn't want to make my enemies happy. I know it was naive, it was childish. But I was self-conscious, abashed, somehow embarrassed, even before Khrushchev." It is classic, really: she cared what her oppressors thought of her. We must remember how deep a claim they had: since she was eleven years old, Plisetskaya had been face-to-face with "the bastards." She lived and breathed with them, and came to understand (and to sympathize with) their burdens, even as she hated them. Like so many others, she had bent over Stalin's dead body and cried. In the end, "they" won. She stayed, and fought at the edges.

 

Plisetskaya's opposition to Soviet authority, however, should not be confused with artistic dissent. In the early years, from 1943 to 1948, she thrived in an aesthetic no-man's-land: the war had left everything up for grabs, and she grabbed. She was her own dancer, and fit intuitively into the quasi-imperial, dramatic, experimental history of the Bolshoi tradition. After 1948, politics colored everything, and she, too, changedbut she changed with the regime, not against it. Her defiant stance, which became a style of movement as well as a strategy for advancement, was part and parcel of the Soviet system.

There is tragedy in all this: her career, so full of promise, was laid waste by Soviet oppression. Her personal history made it impossible for her to disengage. She could not leave, and she could not retreat (as Shostakovich did) into a more private but still fruitful artistic world. Partly this was her fate as a performer: she had no "desk drawer" in which she might conceal a truer work. But mostly it was a direct consequence of her twisted but untiring identification with Soviet authority. For better or worse, "she" and "they" were forever entwined.

For the history of Russian ballet, the consequences are no less grim. Latent in the Bolshoi's crass disregard for the niceties of tradition was an openness to stylistic alternatives that the Kirov had all but lost. Plisetskaya was pure Bolshoi; she might have retrieved Gorsky's torch and led Russian classicism to a new and interesting future. Instead she bequeathed a small, brittle shell of a style; a parody of her original open-hearted abandon. She had dignity, always. But even that was often reduced to a hard, defiant, chin-up posture. An important opportunity had been lost.

Is it lost forever? It is too early to judge. Much depends on the next generation, and the signs are not yet clear. It is up to them to look back and to evaluate the Soviet heritage, to decide what to salvage and what to discard. Will they throw up their hands in disgust and run west to the Kirov and Europe? If so, historians will rightfully mourn the death of the dynamic "Tartar" branch of Russian classicism. There would be no profit in such an outcome, only an impoverishment of the classical tradition as a whole. Or will they have the patience and the wisdom to distinguish polluted aesthetic forms from the more authentic alternatives?

When we think of the future of the Bolshoi, we must think of Plisetskaya's Dying Swan, and of her refusal to give in to the lull of the Kirov's Romanticism. We must think of the muscle and the verve that she gave to the legacy of Pavlova, Fokine, and Gorsky. It is important to remember that a swan can be a fighting bird, and that Giselle can "be a temperamental wench" and "die with [her] legs apart, not placing one on the other." So said Gorsky some one hundred years ago. Maya Plisetskaya heard the call. And now?

Jennifer Homans is the dance critic for The New Republic.

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.