The great Russian ballerina, Maya Plisteskaya, has died at age 89. Her legacy is of a dancer who rose above the terrible persecutions of the Soviet Union to become an artist whose incredible powers of expression eventually put her beyond reach. She was incomparable, a ballerina in a league of her own.
(Watch this YouTube video of Plisteskaya dancing Bejart’s Bolero to see for yourself: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=SsSALaDJuN4)
Behind the poise, however, lay a tormented soul, anguished by the cruelties of her motherland, bent on revenge.
She wrote about her sufferings and triumphs inner in her 2002 memoir, I, Maya Plisetskaya. The eye-opening book describes in heart-wrenching detail what is was like being an artist in Stalin’s time. It’s not at all beautiful at the ballet.
If anyone ever thought Communism was an idealistic ideology, Plisteskaya sets them straight.
As a child of the Soviet era, Plisteskaya suffered through the terror, murder and oppression inflicted on citizens by a brutal authoritarian regime. Her father was executed by firing squad during the Great Terror.
Her mother, once a famous Russian silent-film star, was imprisoned in a Siberian concentration camp, while pregnant with Maya’s little brother, for being the wife of an enemy of the people. She lingered there for years. The horror of these earlier years shaped the satin-slippered Plisetskaya into a hard-nosed realist:
“Just think how many holy deceits were perpetuated then in our miserable, god-forsaken, blood-covered Russia,” she writes in her book.
Her autobiography is a searing indictment of Soviet Russia, of communism and of the blinding naivete with which the Isadoras of this world have often approached her country. She welcomed any punishment that might follow her telling of the truth. But post-perestroika, she emerged a heroine of the state. Vladimir Putin himself pinned her with the medal of service in 2000, her country’s highest honour. This is her dead father’s sweetest revenge.
Plisetskaya’s memoirs invariably describe a life in dance. But the book’s biggest value lies in being much more than that. I, Maya is social history written by a dancer who transcends the mute language of her art to tell a universal story of suffering and endurance.
The thud of irony continually disrupts the mellifluous strains of Tchaikovsky that sound in the background of a career that spanned 50 years.
“I would like to talk about Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, how I could toss off grands battements, and my handsome partners,” she writes, setting the tone of sarcasm that runs though this deliciously subversive book.
“But no matter what end of my childhood I look at, it all turns to politics, to the Stalin terror.”