March 31st, 2008

Maya Plisetskaya: a dancer like no other

How old do you think this woman is?


Or this one (hint: it’s the same woman, around the same time)?


Or how about this one?


All three are pictures of Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. She’s eighty years old in the first two photos (see this and this) and eighty-one in the third (see this).

I wrote about Maya a few weeks ago, attempting to describe what was so unique about her dancing. But there’s a great deal more, including her almost superhuman longevity as a dancer.

The hallmark of Plisetskaya’s dancing was extraordinary energy and steely strength, a huge and effortless-looking leap, coupled with extreme suppleness and expressiveness. This is a highly unusual combination even for dancers; more often it’s power versus flexibility, or technique versus acting, not all in the same astounding package.

Plisetskaya was also unusually outspoken, even in the Soviet era, which hurt her ability to travel abroad back in the days when defection was not only feared but almost expected. Here’s a video taken when she was about eighty, in which she listens to her husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin, speak of those days (the part to which I’m referring begins around minute 1:26 and goes to the end of the clip):

As Shchedrin says, with somewhat forgiveable hyperbole, it was almost as though she was a prisoner for many years at the height of her fame—a prisoner who nevertheless was let out on furlough to do her job; in this case, dancing. But, as Shchedrin also says, “She felt a sense of inner freedom.”

He couldn’t mean artistic freedom, because Plisetskaya was bound by the traditionalism of Russian ballet of the time, in which even the newest choreography had to follow the Party line (see this interview for her views on that subject). Within those confines, though, Maya managed to carve out a niche that involved emotional freedom on the stage. She was profoundly expressive and even sexual (without being raunchy) in a time when this was controversial.

Even before she became a famous dancer, Maya experienced much grief under the Soviets. Born in 1925, she came from a family of prominent Jewish artists. Her father was murdered and her mother (and baby brother) imprisoned in 1938 in one of Stalin’s purges. Thereafter, Maya was adopted by her maternal aunt, a ballet dancer. No doubt Maya had a certain amount of steely strength to begin with, or she never would have survived such an experience with her spirit (and sense of “inner freedom”) intact.

Here’s another video, one showing Maya in her prime, in this case her springy, effortless jump. Remember that most ballerinas are known for lyricism; it’s the men who usually are the high jumpers. Maya may have jumped like a man in terms of elevation, but no one would ever have mistaken her for one.

Remember also that a two-dimensional video can but feebly convey the excitement of seeing the three-dimensional jumps in person. I had the privilege of doing so as a child in 1959, one of the few times Plisetskaya was allowed to perform in this country. It’s a cliched phrase, but the one that comes to my mind when watching her leap is “jumping for joy.”

I could go on and on showing you Plisetskaya videos, but you can do a You Tube search yourself and watch to your heart’s delight. I’ll just point out a couple more that are curiosities.

I’ve never been fond of that old chestnut “The Dying Swan.” The footwork consists almost entirely of a flurry of quickly moving steps on pointe known as bourées; the arms and head are meant to be an evocation of the death throes of a swan (the “swan song,” as it were). Way too schmaltzy for my taste. But I include a link to a video of Plisetskaya dancing the piece at 67.

No, that’s not a typo: sixty-seven. (Click here to watch; this one can’t be embedded, either). I think Plisetskaya can be forgiven any dramatic excesses; merely getting out there and up there, on pointe, at the age of sixty-seven, is performance enough.

And, for those of you interested in historical comparison, here’s a rare clip of the ballet’s originator, Anna Pavlova, doing her very different version of the same piece (the film was probably taken in the 1920s).

Plisetskaya has lived long enough to enjoy a great deal of freedom and acclaim, and to have the last laugh on her old nemeses, the Soviets. She’s now a world figure (and a citizen of Spain), much acclaimed and much-loved. Her fiery technique is gone, but her fiery personality remains.

I include a video of Plisetskaya at eighty, dancing. “Dancing” is probably the wrong word; she’s really just walking (albeit in the highest of high heels, an astounding feat all by itself) and striking a few poses reminiscent of her famous Spanish-inspired roles. Unfortunately, the footage does not show her face, which I suspect is as expressive as ever:

Is it sad to see her so diminished? I doubt she thinks so, or she wouldn’t get up there on stage. I don’t think it’s ego that drives her, either; it’s sheer love of dance, love for the audience, and love of life. These things are not diminished.

On the occasion of Maya’s eightieth birthday, an admirer said, of Plisetskaya at the height of her powers, “No one dances like this any more.”

I submit that no one ever did—except Plisetskaya.

18 Responses to “Maya Plisetskaya: a dancer like no other”

  1. Fausta Says:

    Lovely post about a true artist. I so enjoyed your first one, it’s great to see more on her.

    And she looks younger at 81 than I at “29”!

  2. gcotharn Says:

    She is not diminished! She is better than ever – better than she ever was – if only one knows what one is looking for.

  3. chuck Says:

    I saw Martha Graham dance when she was 71; she didn’t move a lot either and the other dancers would give her occasional unobtrusive help. It seems astronomers and dancers can look forward to long productive lives if they stick to the craft and avoid the pitfalls.

  4. GBrahms Says:

    It is as though she were a goddess of the ancient Greeks, or one of the muses. I didn’t know such superlative people existed in these most ungodly (or ungoddesly) of times.

  5. Typical White Person Says:

    I hope I look as good when I am 83, though the life of a construction worker doesn’t lend itself well to aging gracefully.

  6. colagirl Says:

    I can’t believe she’s eighty. I would have guessed fifty or sixty at most from those pictures. Wow.

  7. harry McHitlerburtonstein the Extremist Says:

    Oh, I’,m sorry. I’m looking for the restroom. Can some body point me in the right direction?

  8. Tatyana Says:

    Thank you.

  9. Perfected democrat Says:


  10. Tatyana Says:

    Neo, this is what I found this morning – the source says Polina Semeonova is the new ballet star in the manner of MP – what do you think?

  11. Online Music & Performing Arts Films | MetaFilter Says:

    […] Kinshasa musical underground (previously), portraits (lots of Glenn Gould, Shostakovich by Sokurov, Maya Plisetskaya…), and plenty more. Launched April 30th, it’s streaming its full contents in lovely quality for […]

  12. Ruth Lintott Says:

    I have a pair of her pointe shoes signed by her when she danced in liverpool in the early sixties. My husband worked at the Empire.

  13. Camelbella Says:

    I saw Plisetskaya perform THE DYING SWAN with the Bolshoi, in Melbourne, Australia, in 1970. I was not a great fan of classical ballet, and can remember nothing about the other pieces, except that they bored me. But Maya Plisetskaya’s DYING SWAN was sublime, transcendent! Schmulzy it was not! I have subsequently read that, as her signature piece, it became for her, about aging as a ballerina.

  14. Stuart Eber Says:

    She’s simply the best! A beautiful person inside and out.

  15. Dennis Miralles Says:

    I saw her danced The Dying Swan in early 80″s in Manila’s Cultural Center of the Philippines courtesy of then First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos. I thought she was a goddess sent from above to interpret the most fascinating ballet act I have ever seen. The flexibility of her arms was unbelievable and I haven’t seen any interpretation of the piece as magical as hers. Bravo Maya!

  16. Frank Says:

    I recommend that people take a look at video of Maya in Maurice Béjart’s Bolero:

    And in Death of the Rose:

  17. jamil Says:


  18. John Gibson Says:

    It’s Mayday 2013, and I was surfing Quora and somehow linked to this chestnut.

    I was a student majoring in Russian Studies in 1969. I had an unhappy affair with my Russian teacher that semester. She went away and broke my heart.

    I have always been a nut about classical music, and one day while browsing vinyl records I came across the Carmen Suite by Shchedrin and the album cover was Plisetskaya as Carmen. She was almost the spitting image of my beloved. I have been in love with her ever since, and with the wonderful translation of Bizet’s music as well.

    But love’s boat smashed against the daily grind (Mayakovsky) and the album disappeared from my library. After seven years my Russian teacher and I reconnected. I am ashamed to admit that I had allowed my infatuation with the dancer I never knew to color my hopes for bliss with my reality based Russian teacher, and all was quickly and finally finished between us.

    When next Cupid shot me, I knew that Maya had to go to the closet.

    And now, in her 80’s, I see she has aged as prettily as I was sure she would in 1970. It was really nice to see her again. Thank you.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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