October 27th, 2010

Plisetskaya: ballet rehearsal

Sometimes I need a break from all this politics (like right now!), and one of the things I turn to is dance. Most often ballet. Specifically, certain dancers of my youth, who now, to my joy, are readily available for the watching on YouTube.

I’ve written about Maya Plisetskaya many times before. One of my all-time favorites, she was distinguished in her heyday by her tremendous vitality, an enormous springy jump, great strength, flexible arms, sexiness, joy, drama, and a fluidity of movement that seemed remarkably free, despite her long confinement to the USSR by Soviets who were afraid she would defect if they allowed her to leave.

The lady is now well into her eighties and she looks marvelous. Here’s a videotape from a few years ago; I believe Plisetskaya was then a bright young thing of 74. She is rehearsing a French dancer named Marie-Agnes Gillot, who was about 24 years old at the time.

I am transfixed by Plisetskaya’s high heels, among other things. I’m significantly younger than she, but I’d have trouble even standing in them for more than a few minutes, and here she’s practically dancing in them. As I watched the video, despite Gillot’s approaching the prime of her dance life and technique, my eyes were riveted on Plisetskaya instead.

This is how major dance roles are generally transmitted, by a sort of spirit transfer. The older dancer tries to infuse the younger with the sense of the thing as it was first taught to her, adding all she’s learned about the subtleties of dance in the interim. Such teaching doesn’t always really take, except in bits and pieces; dance has changed too much.

You can see that Gillot’s technique is exponentially more spectacular than Plisetskaya’s ever was: in particular her huge extensions, the arched articulation of her feet, and the secure plumb line of her turns. But to my taste, Plisetskaya is above and beyond her in everything else that makes for dancing. Even here, when she had lost the ability to dance on the stage, so much remains (be patient; she doesn’t really get going till about midway through the clip).

[NOTE: I'm aware the Gillot is learning the role and not dancing full-out. But Plisetskaya certainly isn't dancing full-out either; she can't.

For those of you unfamiliar with the variation they are rehearsing, it is part of the third act of Swan Lake: the role of Odile, an evil temptress come to impersonate the heroine and make the Prince forget his vows to his true love. You will note that, towards the end of the tape, Plisetskaya mimes a whole series of moments: where Odile laughs in manic triumph at her success when she gets the Prince to swear falsely (around 4:42), and then in turn some of the reactions of the assembled court, including his swooning mother.]

14 Responses to “Plisetskaya: ballet rehearsal”

  1. Marine's Mom Says:

    I love ballet, but as a pianist, I have to note, that piano player is awesome. Accompanying is one of the most thankless jobs ever!

  2. SteveH Says:

    74? Wow.

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    SteveH: Plisetskaya is always wow-worthy. Even today.

    Here she and her husband are in 2008, when she was 83, on their 50th wedding anniversay (note that in the dance clip that ends this video, where she is in the black dress with the pouffy maroon skirt, she is 80 years old):

  4. Trish N Says:

    I love these ballet piece that you post. That was always what I wanted to be when I was a little girl – unfortunately I grew to a towering height of 5’10″ but I still love watching graceful dancers and your occasional posts on dancing are really enjoyable. I read your blog daily but don’t post often. Your pieces are well done and thought provoking. Thanks!

  5. DBrooks Says:

    Thank you for this, neo. That was very inspiring.

  6. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Unfortunately, even with inspired guidance, I don’t get it.
    I was in a play in high school, going on fifty years ago. Had the lead. Learned how to make everything look real–you have to fake everything–and I’ve been unable to watch any play ever since without looking past the performance to the “business”.
    Lucky neo to know so much and still see the performance as well as the business.

  7. Cherie Says:

    Neo, as an aging (ballroom) dancer, I have a thought about those high heels… When your arches can no longer support your weight, you wear shoes that keep your feet elevated – the strain is on the shoes instead of on your feet. Your foot is in a better position for dancing, and your body balance is more danceworthy as well. I’m doing that myself these days (although her shoes are far sexier than mine) – it’s hard not being able to dance on my toes anymore, and hard dancing in relatively big and clunky shoes. But better than not dancing at all. The girl ‘got’ about 5-10% of what Mme P was trying to show her. She should have just watched her head/shoulders/face, instead of trying to follow the movement.

  8. julia NYC Says:

    Yeah, the great ones always know how to inhabit the music, it just oozes out of them, they are so in synch with it, and then that combined with a rare unself conciousness, that’s what makes you watch them even if their technique is gone. Dancers always work on their technique, I don’t know if they aren’t able to absorb the music, or if they just don’t think about that much cause they’re too busy working on their athletic chops.

    I go to the ballet a lot and the ones you can’t take your eyes off of are the most musical ones. Of course if you’ve got that AND the technique look out, plus the gutsy unself consciousness, well those are the greats and they a joy and they are rare.

    For men dancers check out Daniil Simkin at ABT. He’s just a soloist, quite young, but holy smokes the kids’ got it all. He’s a bit small though, so don’t know if he’ll get big male partnering roles. Probably not. Still, it’s so fantastic to see these legends live.

    Thanks again for reminding us about Plitsetskaya. Killer. What an original. She and Suzanne Farrell are my favorites.

  9. bob sykes Says:

    Very few women, even dancers, can walk gracefully in high heels. Nicolette Sheridan is one.

  10. acr Says:

    Thanks Neo. Just what I needed to start my day. What a beautiful woman. Had to laugh at the “idiot prince” line.

  11. Tatyana Says:

    acr: I had to laugh, too. Because she said “Идёт Принц” = Here comes the Prince…the verb sounds “idjOt” (accent on 2nd syllable) which in transcription looks close to “idiot”.

    Altogether…I think even though she looks amazing for her age, she would do better not giving “master classes”. She can’t communicate in French (and even in Russian her comments are rather mumbling), she probably used to just show the movement and the pupil would follow and understand – but she can’t use her whole body as model anymore; using just torso and upper body is not enough.

    Ah, sic transit…

  12. neo-neocon Says:

    Tatyana: yes, I saw a discussion in the comments section on YouTube about whether she said “idiot prince” or “here’s the prince” or some such thing. People advocating for each side.

    Dancers actually are trained to follow directions that are not verbal. It would be highly unusual for a coach/teacher who is helping someone learn a role to be demonstrating full out. They usually do exactly what Plisetskaya is doing here. It is not the steps that are being transmitted; the younger dancer knows the steps already, probably much better than the older one does. The older dancer is teaching emphasis, phrasing, expression, and other subtleties that mainly involve either the upper body, arms, and face, or timing and what’s called “attack,” which is something like emphasis. And older dancers can even do this from a wheelchair.

    It’s not a master class, either. It is a private coaching session where she’s helping Gillot, who is a principal dancer, prepare to perform the role.

  13. douglas Says:

    Just watching the hands is so informative. Gillot’s hands are doing pretty much the same thing in each extension of the arms, while Plisetskaya’s are conversing with the observer, expressing numerous ideas, appropriate to each arm extensions meaning.

    Gillot’s hands reminded me of people who, when speaking from prepared remarks, use the same repetetive hand motions- it really bugs me. It’s visually akin to using the same inflection on each sentence you speak, detached from what you’re saying in the sentence.

  14. Anonna Says:

    It is too bad that nowadays ballet dancers no longer have a feminine figure: no breasts, no softness. We might as well let boys dance their parts.

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About Me

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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