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."
Plisetskaya's Carmen also rattled the Soviet establishment. After the ballet's opening night in 1967, the Soviet minister of culture, shocked by its unembarrassed voluptuousness, demanded its immediate replacement by that stalwart "The Nutcracker."
"This is a failure, a complete failure, comrades," the minister, Yekaterina Furtseva, told Plisetskaya and her husband after the show, according to Plisetskaya's memoir, "I, Maya Plisetskaya." "Total eroticism. The music is almost destroyed. This way is alien to us. Maya, put on a skirt. This is the stage of the Bolshoi Theater, comrades!"
Plisetskaya refused to budge.
"Minister Furtseva said that Carmen will die," she recalled this month. "And I said 'Carmen will die only if I die,' but now I'm saying I can die, but Carmen will continue to live." She added that her version of Carmen was part of the fight for freedom.
She went on to dance in "Carmen Suite" 350 times.
"I suggested that we should change the name of the ballet to 'Gypsy Maya,' " said Alonso, who is in Moscow for the Plisetskaya festival. "Maya was the ideal casting. She understood Carmen's heart."
Plisetskaya toured the West only a handful of times during her long career with the Bolshoi. Russians said the government considered her "unexportable." She became known as the defector who never defected. The KGB shadowed her not only during rare trips abroad, but also at home in Moscow.
This month, rather than dwell on past repression, Plisetskaya spoke of her love for the Bolshoi.
"I have always adored it and still adore it," she said. "I think it's the best stage in the world. Every time I went on stage I felt the joy of existence, joy to dance on this stage."
During the open rehearsal, the latest generation of Bolshoi dancers performed, fluid and natural. Even more interesting were the arms of their aged teacher, just visible offstage. Necks in the audience craned to see those arms, which some have called Plisetskaya's greatest physical attribute, as she gestured to the dancers to strive for the right balance of bravado and believability.
That balance is still there, beating in the pulse of her wrists.