The camera often lies when it tries to capture dancing. How could it be otherwise? The movement has been stopped in mid-flight, the evanescent pose has been shackled to the page. We see a likeness that is not similar. (It is the skill of Anthony Crickmay, the best of today’s dance chroniclers, that he can fix the dance yet preserve its onward impulse.)
I have just looked again at a book published in Moscow in 1976, which celebrated the art of Maya Plisetskaya, assoluta of the Bolshoi Ballet, who celebrates her 80th birthday on Sunday. Like every dance-goer in Russia and around the world, I adored Plisetskaya, who was a lightning flash, a tigress, the ultimate tragic heroine and the epitome of joyous bravura, dazzling and intoxicating to the senses.
The commemorative volume about Plisetskaya contains tributes from poets and writers and critics - words, words, impotent words - and those grainy, fuzzy action shots that were commonplace in Soviet-era photography. Yet each and every one spoke of Plisetskaya as I knew her on stage from 1963 when she first came in glory to London (which did not really comprehend her genius), and as I last saw her three years ago when we lunched near the Barbican, where her husband Rodion Shchedrin’s compositions were being performed. The image of Maya Mikhailovna Plisetskaya remained unchanged throughout her stage career, which lasted more than half a century.
Even in pictures of her as a student, you can see the vivid stretch of her body, the fine-drawn beauty of her profile. By the time she became a ballerina at the Bolshoi in 1943, at the age of 18, the enduring Plisetskaya image was there, aspiring into the air in tremendous leaps, drama burnt into every line of her movement. In every grainy snapshot, the passionate intensity of her art speaks - of the role, and of her indomitable spirit as a woman who was victimised and used by the Soviet system.
I was blessed in being able to see her in her greatest Moscow roles: her Kitri in Don Quixote was an explosion of the happiest, all-conquering impossibilities of technique; in Swan Lake her lyricism and malign brilliancy were heroic in scale; her Juliet was a proud rebel, her Carmen a fire-storm of passion, and in the charming Russian folk tale The Little Humpbacked Horse she was bewitching in grace and dignity.
For choreographers in the west she was an inspirational figure: Serge Lifar cast her memorably in the title role of Phedre; Roland Petit made roles for her to which she brought an ineffable allure; for Maurice Bejart she played Isadora, a role he created for her in homage to Isadora Duncan. There were triumphs wherever she danced, even if certain mousey London critics were too disquieted by her talent to understand it.
Behind these splendours were the tensions and distress caused to so many Russian artists by the Soviet authorities - denial of travel abroad, of opportunities. Mistrust. Plisetskaya comes from a distinguished Jewish family which gave superb dancers, actors and designers to the nation. Her father, an engineer, was killed. Her mother, an actress, was deported to Kazakhstan. No wonder her art could seem vehement, a cry of protest, for she was used on foreign tours by the Bolshoi as a cash-machine, her massive fees appropriated by the state.
Her memoirs, written a decade ago and published in English in 2002, are (as was her art at times) astonishingly frank, extreme and burning to the touch. But she was not broken by the system, nor by the passage of years. She danced on magnificently. She also battled with Yuri Grigorovich, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, and staged such works for herself as Anna Karenina, The Seagull and The Lady with a Dog. She was, and still is, a star, ballet’s monstre sacre, the final statement about theatrical glamour, a flaring, flaming beacon in a world of dimly twinkling talents, a beauty in a world of prettiness.
Tomorrow, the Bolshoi Ballet will celebrate her 80th birthday with a gala. It is my hope that she will dance. She remains a beautiful woman, the line of her body in its Pierre Cardin clothes still clear, her russet hair still simply dressed, the profile as proud as ever (I have always believed you could recognise it from a mile away) and the fire of temperament still bright. As we lunched a few years ago she spoke of a new solo part that Bejart had made for her, and, still seated, started to show this Ave Maya dance to me. It was as if the door of a blast furnace had opened, so powerful was the psychic energy, the sudden flare of temperament, so enthralling the movement.
Plisetskaya is an assoluta - that ultimate accolade for the ballerina - and her genius is still undimmed. Dear Maya Mikhailovna, I offer you my greetings, my gratitude for your performances, and my respect and admiration for all you represent as a great Russian artist. Happy Birthday from Clement.
A gala is being held on Sunday at the Palace of Congress in Moscow in honour of Maya Plisetskaya’s 80th birthday.
Clement Crisp is the FT’s dance critic.
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