Moscow Honors Bolshoi's 'True Queen'

Maya Plisetskaya, the renowned Russian ballerina, performed
Maya Plisetskaya, the renowned Russian ballerina, performed "Isadora Duncan," a tribute to the American dancer, in Kiev, Ukraine, in March 1996, when she was 70. She turns 80 today. (By Efrem Lukatsky -- Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 20, 2005

MOSCOW -- Her leaps are legend. Swan-arms raised to the heavens, leg bent toward the back of her auburn hair, she seemed to stop in midair. Maya Plisetskaya always hung there, for the longest moment, as if she might defeat time and gravity.

One of the Soviet Union's greatest ballerinas, and certainly among its most individualistic, Plisetskaya is still keeping time at bay. On Sunday night, at Moscow's Kremlin Palace, she will celebrate her 80th birthday by performing "Ave Maya," a three-minute ballet created for her five years ago by Maurice Bejart, the renowned French choreographer.

The gift to a city that still adores her will come at the end of a performance of "Don Quixote."

"People are like roses," Plisetskaya said recently at a news conference to announce the week-long festival that the Bolshoi Ballet is conducting in her honor. "Some wither early, others stay longer."

That Plisetskaya became one of the extraordinary artists of her generation is itself a miracle. She was born in 1925 into a Jewish family of artists and intellectuals and joined the Moscow Choreographic School at the age of 9. Her father, the manager of an Arctic coal mine, was arrested during the Great Terror launched by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and executed in 1937. Her mother was sent to a prison in Kazakhstan.

Plisetskaya was taken in and mentored by her aunt, Sulamith Messerer, an acclaimed dancer who was still teaching aspiring dancers at the Bolshoi when she died in 2004 at the age of 95 .

"I don't think art saved only me," Plisetskaya said this month. "I think it saves everyone."

When she was at her peak in the 1950s and '60s, Soviet dancers were known for their discipline and technique. But Plisetskaya became renowned for her expressiveness, passion and even aggression onstage.

At a recent open rehearsal on the new Bolshoi stage (her longtime home, the dilapidated Bolshoi Theater, is undergoing a massive renovation), she brought a nearly full house to its feet, some people in tears, as she moved around the stage recalling her signature ballets and flexing her legs in divine old steps.

"Every motion is meaningful," she said at the rehearsal, her body seemingly as lithe and graceful as ever. "You have to make yourself think over every sight and every gesture."

Plisetskaya is best known for her lyrical interpretation of the double role of Odette/Odile in "Swan Lake," a tired ballet that she reinvigorated in more than 800 performances over 30 years. Her sensuous Carmen in "Carmen Suite," which the Cuban director Alberto Alonso created for her from the Bizet opera, broadened the very narrow Soviet idea of classicism. Plisetskaya's composer husband, Rodion Shchedrin, arranged the music for the ballet.

"The cool, rational, classical style of the Bolshoi, which reigns there to this day, was shaken with her Latin sensuality," wrote Anatoly Korolev, a cultural commentator for the Russian news agency Ria-Novosti, in a tribute last week. "She was never afraid to bring ardor and vehemence onto the stage. Buttressed by top-notch dancing techniques and a refinement of line, it made her true queen of the Bolshoi."

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