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Posted on May 9th, 2012, by

Maya Plisetskaya is one of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century whose contribution in the development of the world ballet, her performance was really great and even unique to the extent that she is frequently perceived as ”˜the greatest ballerina of all times’. At the same time, her life and work is characterized by permanent struggle with numerous problems and even tragedies of her life. In fact, this ballet dancer had a life full of significant events which actually defined her future. Moreover, even the choice of her future profession is basically the result of a series of tragic events that, ironically, gave the world the great ballerina. This is why it is extremely interesting to find out what actually defined her future at large and her future profession in particular, what influenced problems and obstacles she faced as a ballet dancer of the Bolshoi Theatre and how they affected her life and what was the response of Maya Plisetskaya to all these problems. In fact, it is not a secret that she was constantly constraint as a professional and ballet dancer by the existing totalitarian system of the Soviet Union which she fully freed herself from only after the collapse of this oppressive state.

Speaking about the life and work of Maya Plisetskaya, it is necessary to underline that a great part of her life and practically all the time of her professional work as a ballet dancer, she had to struggle with the system that existed in the USSR. In this respect, it should be said that since the early childhood she had learned what it was to live in a totalitarian state where an individual had neither elementary human rights nor opportunities to realize them. At the same time, ironically and even hypocritically it sounds, but her career of a ballet dancer and her profound interest in ballet at large would probably be under a question, if the totalitarian Soviet system was different and did not cause so many troubles to this heroic woman.

First of all, it should be said that she was born in 1925, in the Jewish family of artists and intellectuals.

Unfortunately, both these facts, i.e. Jewish origin and social status of her family as artistic and intellectual that could be practically perceived as an aristocratic in the Soviet society of that epoch, produced a dramatic impact on her further life and work. In fact, being a little girl, Maya Plisetskay soon learned what it meant to be Jewish artist and intellectual in the Soviet Union. Moreover, this lesson she learned was probably the greatest tragedy of her entire life that she always remembered.

What had actually happened was a typical story of an average Soviet family of Stalinist epoch. At the beginning the life of the Plisetsky family was usual and calm. The little girl, Maya went to school in Spitzbergen where her father worked in a coal mine as an engineer. However, the tragedy occurred when the girl was only nine years old. In 1937, her father was arrested during the Great Terror launched by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and in 1938 he was executed. It does not worth mentioning that the accusation and death sentence were based on fabricated allegations and, in actuality, he was an innocent person. In fact, his only guilt was that he was a Jewish intellectual who lived in a wrong place in a wrong time. Briefly speaking, the farther of Maya Plisetskaya became a victim of the Stalinist regime that repressed millions of people.

However, it was only a part of the great tragedy of the Plisetsky family that affected the entire life of Maya. To put it more precisely, the father was just the first victim in the family of the regime. Similarly to millions of other families the family of Maya had undergone the same procedures of total ruination. After the execution of her father, her mother was under attack. In that epoch it was quite natural that the family of a ”˜criminal’, or ”˜people’s enemy’, as political criminals were often officially called, was repressed. As a result, the mother of Maya Plisetskaya was exiled to Kazakhstan where she was sent to GULAG, the penitentiary system created for the opponents of the regime and their relatives.

Taking into consideration the fact that her mother was a silent-film actress, this exile practically meant the end of her professional career as well as her life at large. At the same time, the future of Maya Plisetskaya herself was also quite vague because of such a family history she could hardly achieve anything in her future life. Nonetheless, she did not give in. Basically, due to her aunt, who adopted a little girl that, in actuality, became an orphan after the Stalinist repressions, Maya had managed to keep living and found a new goal in her life when she started to study under a great ballerina of imperial school, Elizaveta Gerdt. In fact, ballet was quite a natural choice for the little girl since she had already attended Chorographical school in Moscow before, and, what is more, her own aunt, who actually replaced her mother, was a gifted ballerina Sulamith Messerer.

It is necessary to underline that ballet practically saved the life of Maya Plisetskaya because it made a new sense of her life after she had lost her parents. In such a way, her studies was her personal response to the cruelty of the Soviet regime and it was a symbol of her resistance and boldness to keep a normal life. Not surprisingly that many years later she remarked in her interview to Washington Post: “I don’t think art saved only me, it saves everyone” (Finn 23).

In actuality, ballet really save Maya in an extremely difficult period of her life and probably created the basis for her further progress. Anyway, later it became obvious that regardless all repressions, the Stalinist regime did not manage to destroy the greatest ballerina of the epoch. In fact, her ballet dance became her life and the means of the struggle with the regime.

Remarkably, but her talent could not fail to remain unnoticed even in the epoch when the family history was of a paramount importance. Nonetheless, despite her past, Maya Plisetskaya’s performance was so perfect that unlike many, if not to say all, other ballet dancers of the epoch she did not spend any time in the corps de ballet but immediately became principal ballerina after graduation.

However, it does not mean that she conquered the Bolshoi Theatre only due to her natural talent. In stark contrast, to a significant extent, it was not only talent but also a hard toil and regular training and practice that eventually made Maya Plisetskaya the ballet dancer acclaimed at the global scale. In fact, her work in the Bolshoi theatre and the roles she performed there were also marked by numerous problems and endless petty harassments she endured, as she wrights in her book “I, Maya Plisetskaya”, from both “envious colleagues and Party officials” (179).

Furthermore, she was still discriminated. Regardless the fact that she performed the main roles in the Bolshoi theatre, she still could not get permission for six years to tour with the company that was really strange and logically inexplicable. In fact, the only explanation was the Soviet totalitarian system that kept repressing its people, even such outstanding ones as Maya Plisetskaya. At the same time, for her in person it was still the same struggle with the Soviet regime which cruelty she had already faced in her early childhood. This is why she get used to constant resistance from the part of officials and her discrimination as a Jewish ballet dancer whose parents were repressed.

Eventually, the Soviet regime did not manage to cope with her insistence, her hard work, and, finally, her greatest talent and in 1959 the world got to learn the name of Maya Plisetskaya and admired her performance. In fact, since this international debut it is possible to speak about her victorious performance.

However, it was not just a victory that won hearts and minds of the world audience and brought her the world glory and acclaim but it was a defeat of the Soviet system which could not stop her progress and popularity worldwide. On the other hand, it is worthy to note that even being a well-known ballet dancer worldwide Maya Plietskaya was still under pressure and in her book she recalls how she was close to starvation and KGB plots to capitalize on her friendship with Robert Kennedy.

Thus, Maya Plisetskaya really became the greatest ballet dancer of her epoch. nonetheless, it seems to be that it was not simply her love to art but it is rather her personal revenge to the Soviet regime which her challenged even in her dance and performance changing traditional norms accepted in the Bolshoi Theatre, the citadel of the Soviet ballet: “the cool, rational, classical style of the Bolshoi, which reigns there to this day, was shaken with her Latin sensuality” (Finn 23). In this respect, it is very symbolic that eventually she was named prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi that was quite important for her as a ”˜revolutionary’ and dissident from art. Even though she had never openly revealed this fact but it seems that her entire life is a counteraction on the repressions and discrimination she and her family suffered from in the USSR.

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