Prima Ballerina Assoluta: Maya Mikhaylovna Plisetskaya
Maya Mikhaylovna Plisetskaya was born on November 20, 1925, Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R., into a prominent family of Lithuanian artists, of Jewish descent.
Her father, Mikhail Plisetski (Misha), was a diplomat, engineer, and mine director. Her mother, Rachel Messerer-Plisetskaya, was a silent-film actress. Her maternal uncle and aunt, Asaf Messerer and Sulamith Messerer, were Bolshoi dancers. Her brother, Alexander Plisetski, became a famous choreographer and her niece, Anna Plisetskaya, also became a ballerina.
She went to school in Spitsbergen as her father was stationed at Spitzbergen to supervise the coal mines in Barentsburg, she stayed there for four years with her family, from 1932 to 1936.
When Plisetskaya was very young, her family was ravaged by the Stalinist purges. In 1937, her father disappeared during the Stalinist purges. It was fifty years before the family learned that he was executed in 1938.
In 1938, her mother was arrested and sent to a prison camp in Kazakhstan. Plisetskaya and her seven-month-old baby brother were taken in by their maternal aunt, ballerina Sulamith Messerer until her mother was released in 1941.
In 1934, she was admitted to the Moscow Choreographic School, which produces most of the Bolshoi Ballet dancers, a year earlier than her classmates. Plisetskaya studied under the great ballerina of imperial school, Elizaveta Gerdt.
In 1936, after her 11th birthday, she first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre. When she was 11, Plisetskaya appeared as the Bread Crumb Fairy in Asaf Messerer’s production of The Sleeping Beauty.
In 1942, she returned to wartime Moscow.
In 1943, at the age of 18, Plisetskaya graduated from the choreographic school and was accepted to the Bolshoi Theater ballet company, it was not as a member of the corps de ballet, but as a soloist. Being accepted as a soloist was an unusual move, indicative of the enormous talent Plisetskaya presented. For the role of Masha in The Nutcracker Plisetskaya received the coaching of yet another legendary figure in the history of Russian ballet—Agrippina Vaganova, the director of the ballet school in Leningrad whose methods of teaching were the basis at all Soviet ballet schools.
In 1944 Plisetskaya danced Myrtha in Giselle. The following year, she danced the title role in Raymonda. In 1947, she danced the dual role of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake.
In 1948 the Zhdanov Doctrine took effect, and with her family history and being Jewish, dancing roles were continually denied her and for 16 years she could tour only within the Soviet bloc. In 1949, she was awarded the 1st prize, Budapest International Competition.
In 1950, she danced Kitri in Don Quixote. That same year she danced the Bacchante in the Walpurgis Night scene from Faust. The following year, she received the title of the People’s Artist of the RSFSR. In 1952, she danced Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.
In 1956, she gave one of the most dominant performances of her career, in Swan Lake, for her concert in Moscow. That same year, she danced the title role in Laurencia.
In 1953, she appeared in the film Stars of the Russian Ballet. In 1957, she had a role in the film Swan Lake.
In 1958, Plisetskaya married the young composer and pianist Rodion Shchedrin, and she received the title of the People’s Artist of the U.S.S.R.
During the 1950s, she was not allowed to travel abroad with the Bolshoi company, due to her strong will and individualist attitude. Fearing that she might defect to the West, Soviet authorities banned Plisetskaya from traveling abroad until 1959. Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev lifted the travel ban in response to her growing popularity. In 1959, during the Bolshoi Theater’s U.S. debut tour she performed in Spartacus. It was her first trip abroad.
After Galina Ulanova left the stage in 1960, Plisetskaya was proclaimed the Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Bolshoi Theatre, at the age of 45.
In 1962, she appeared in the film, The Little Humpbacked Horse. That same year, Plisetskaya embarked on another 3-month world tour.
In 1961 and 1964, Plisetskaya performed in numerous countries and was a guest artist with the Paris Opéra.
Her performances were recorded for the films: Stars of the Russian Ballet (1953), Swan Lake(1957), Plisetskaya Dances (1964), Anna Karenina (1975), and Carmen Suite (1978)—in the latter two starring opposite her protégé Alexander Godunov.
Plisetskaya received the Anna Pavlova Prize, in Paris, in 1962. In 1964, she received the Lenin Prize for outstanding work in the arts. She appeared in ballets by such non-Soviet choreographers as Roland Petit, Maurice Béjart, and Alberto Alonso.
In 1965, she danced in Legend of Love. She was the winner of the 1965 Dance Magazine Award.
In 1967, Plisetskaya performed as Carmen in the Carmen Suite, choreographed especially for her by Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso.
When she produced the Carmen Suite, the first of several collaborations with her husband, she challenged Yuri Grigorovich’s authority as artistic director of the Bolshoi. The Carmen Suite was followed by Anna Karenina (1972, her first attempt at choreography), The Seagull (1980) and Lady with a Dog (1985), works staged by Plisetskaya capitalized on her hypnotic and dramatic stage presence.
By the late 1970s, an open breach occurred between her and Grigorovich, and she no longer toured with the main Bolshoi company but she led a small ensemble of Bolshoi dancers. During those years, Plisetskaya increasingly spent time abroad.
In 1973, Roland Petit was the first Western choreographer to work with her. He choreographed La Rose Malade, a 12-minute pas de deux based on Blake’s poem and premiered in Paris. Also, in 1973, Plisetskaya worked with Maurice Béjart, performing his Bolero for stage and film.
In 1975, she appeared in the film Anna Karenina. From 1975 she also performed with the Ballet du XXe Siècle of Brussels. The company dissolved in 1987.
In 1976, Plisetskaya appeared in the film Fantaziya. In 1977, the then mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, awarded her the city’s Gold Medal. That same year, she performed the title role in Isadora.
From 1983–1984, she was the artistic director of the Rome Opera Ballet.
In 1985, Plisetskaya received the title of Hero of Socialist Labour in 1985.
She was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur in 1986, much to the surprise of numerous Soviet officials, who thought it was a title reserved solely for war heroes and political figures.
In 1987, at the age of 61, she performed with Russian emigres Nureyev and Baryshnikov during a gala performance with the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York, U.S.A.
From 1987–1990, Plisetskaya was the artistic director of Spain’s National Dance Company Ballet del Teatro Lírico Nacional in Madrid. In 1988, she commissioned and danced Jose Granero’s Maria Estuardo (Mary Stuart). She also had a passion for flamenco dance.
In 1990, at the age of 65, Plisetskaya finally retired from her position as a soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet. After retiring, Plisetskaya worked as a ballet director, teacher, and choreographer.
In 1990, she accepted an invitation to dance in Julio Lopez’s El Reñidero (The Cockfight), to Astor Piazzolla’s music in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
In the 1990s, she began living in Munich, Germany, with her husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin.
Starting in 1994, Plisetskaya presided over the annual international ballet competitions, called Maya; created because of her.
She received the Gold Medal for the Fine Arts, Spain in 1991.
In 1993, she celebrated the 50th anniversary of her debut as a member of Bolshoi Ballet Company by dancing The Madwoman of Chaillot at the Bolshoi.
In 1994, Plisetskaya founded the Russian Imperial Ballet. That same year, she presented her memoirs in Moscow, I, Maya Plisetskaya. In her memoirs, Plisetskaya discussed her father’s execution under Joseph Stalin, her mother’s subsequent spell in exile, and her personal struggle for artistic freedom.
In 1995, on Plisetskaya’s 70th birthday, she debuted in Ave Maya, choreographed for her by Maurice Béjart. She danced Ave Maya again for her 80th anniversary. At the age of 82, Plisetskaya danced Béjart’s piece at the Cap Roig Gardens festival in Spain.
In 1996, at the age of 70, Plisetskaya received rave reviews for her remarkable performance of her signature The Dying Swan at the City Center in New York. In 1996, she danced The Dying Swan at a gala in her honor in St. Petersburg, Russia.
In 1996, she was named as President of the Imperial Russian Ballet.
In 2000, she and her husband founded the International Maya Plisetskaya and Rodion Shchedrin Foundation, in Mainz, Germany.
She received the Medal for Service to Russia in 1995 and 2000.
In 2005, Plisetskaya’s 80th birthday was marked by galas in Moscow, Paris, Tokyo, and in London at the Royal Opera House.
In 2005, Plisetskaya received Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for the arts, and the following year she was granted the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for theatre or film. Emperor Akihito presented to her the Praemium Imperiale, informally considered a Nobel Prize for Art.
On May 2, 2015, at the age of 89, she died from a heart attack in Munich, Germany. She is survived by her husband, Rodion Shchedrin. They had no children.
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- She held both Lithuanian and Spanish citizenship.
- She received Honorary Doctorates from Sorbonne, Paris and Lomonosov University, Moscow.