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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Books: Maya Plisetskaya

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Guest Mashinka

Vagansmom, I wholeheartedly agree with your comments regarding Valery Panov's book To Dance. It was co-written by an author named George Feifer who is most famous for his novel "the Girl from Petrovka". Some years earlier he wrote a book of impressions of famous contemporary Russians, one of whom was Plisetskaya. I must have read the book getting on for 30 years ago now and can no longer remember the actual title. However he wrote quite vividly about Plisetskaya and she came across as a very steely personality indeed.


Plisetskaya's autobiography can actually be divided into two halves, the first half is Plisetskaya v Soviet officialdom, and the second half concerns her experiences in the west where she writes at length about Petit and Bejart. The personalities with whom she worked in her earlier years in Russia are completely ignored.


Both Panov and Plisetskaya paint a very gloomy picture of life in Soviet Russia, but to discover the other side of that picture try reading "Behind the Bolshoi Curtain" by the late Richard Collins, an English dance student and eventual corps member of the Bolshoi. Collins had a riotous time in Russia and writes a very truthful account of his life there full of warmth and humour. The Russians he met seem much the same as those I have met - full of kindness and generosity. It is a book that leaves you with a very warm feeling.

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Guest Jeannie

re. photo with Putin: My guess is that Plisetskaya simply updated the photos for the English-language printing & did not write a new chapter to fill-in the seven-year gap between the publication of the Russian & English versions. The Plisetskaya autobiography was published in 1994, when Vladimir Putin was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg & nobody imagined that he would one day be President of the Russian Federation...least of all himself. Funny, too, about Plisetskaya's KGB stories, yet her tremendous pride in being awarded an accolade from the hands of the former head of the KGB/FSB. I guess that bygones can be bygones.


[ January 02, 2002: Message edited by: Jeannie ]

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  • 4 weeks later...

I didn't go to the ballet in the 60s and 70s, and I haven't seen Maya Plisetskaya on video. Yet, I'm fascinated by everything Russian and the ballet. So this autobiography holds a natural interest for me.


A few questions for those more knowledgable: from reading this book (and the jacket) it sounds like Plisetskaya was THE Bolshoi ballerina, other than Galina Ulanova. Is that the case? Can anyone describe how she danced? What were her strengths?


Does anyone have video recommendations?


Although I am only about halfway through the book, I can only concur with what has already been said here. There is less about ballet than there is about the Soviet system. Although interesting, I find that a bit sad as Russian ballet under the Soviets would also be fascinating. It was clearly written for a Russian audience that is familiar with her career.


I am dumbstruck, however, to learn that she was married before Schedrin. This is a biography, as has been noted, and one would think the major points of her life would be covered. I now think she viewed it less of a biography than a chance to get some things off her chest.

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There's a video called Plisetskaya Dances that has a lot of her Kitri on it -- I think that was her great role, that and "Swan Lake." She and Ulanova were the great Bolshoi ballerinas (Ulanova was Kirov trained, but transferred to the Kirov). There's a wonderful video called "Stars of the Russian Ballet" with BOTH Ulanova and Plisetskaya, and I'm still jealous of people who got to see them night after night.


From video evidence and stories of friends, Plisetskaya had an extraordinary technique and was very dramatic. One of the "monstre sacres."

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Thanks Alexandra.


One of the failings of the book is that you really don't get a feel for how she danced. (Unlike, say, Allegra Kent's autobiography.) It's odd that she had extraordinary technique, because she downplays her technique in the book. She makes a point of saying she resents never having had the opportunity to study with Vaganova, as some of her contemporaries did (ie Ulanova). And she relates a story of Balanchine telling her she needs a good teacher, after she tells him she doesn't study with anyone. Thus, I thought she might have been like Fonteyn -- someone with flawed technique but great presence.


I'll take your advice and purchase the "Stars of the Russian Ballet" from Amazon. After first clicking the ad at the top of this page, of course.

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When I first became interested in ballet, Plisetskaya was the one people held up as being the super technician -- you'll see her turns on the video. She looks like a skater.


She may well not have been perfectly placed, as a Vaganova student would be. (And dancers are always hard on themselves, especially great ones.) I also think she was one who wanted to be able to forget the technique so she could tear up the stage. Even on film, you can sense she was an animal on stage.


I showed some of the Don Q footage to a class of dancers once -- they'd never heard of her. They were astounded. They kept saying she danced like a man. (I don't think Maya P would have taken that as a compliment.)

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  • 2 weeks later...
Guest felursus

We all knew that there were KGB agents following the dancers around on tour (and of course were aware that Plisetskaya was not allowed on the 1959 Bolshoi tour of the US (their first appearance here). So when she turned up on the next tour she was an object of curiosity even before we saw her dance. BTW the KGB agents were not just burly men "in raincoats" - a lot of them were the wardrobe ladies, and one was a US interpreter who had been hired by the KGB to spy on the Russian dancers. Generally, the dancers were allowed to "socialize" with fans, briefly, at the stage door and in the lobby of their hotel (opposite Penn Station). The hotel was about 7 blocks from the Old Met, so another opportunity to socialize was to walk with them back to the hotel. Of course, no one could go up to their rooms. This produced feelings of amazement at the turn of history when, during the Kirov tours after the fall of the Soviet Union, we could happily picnic with Kirov dancers in their hotel rooms. The younger dancers who had not been on foreign tours prior the the change in government took this openness in stride, but when talking to the older dancers they, too, expressed amazement.

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Victoria Leigh

Actually, felursus, she was on that tour in '59. I saw her do Dying Swan, and will never forget it because it was both the most awesome and then one of the most destroyed things I had ever seen. Awesome the first time, but, to me, totally ruined by an encore! I was pretty young, and not very knowledgeable, but I somehow knew that was wrong, and the moment which had been so incredible was wrecked.

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