I, Maya Plisetskaya

I, Maya Plisetskaya

by Maya Plisetskaya, Antonina W. Bouis

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Maya Plisetskaya, one of the world's foremost dancers, rose to become a prima ballerina of Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet after an early life filled with tragedy and loss. In this spirited memoir, Plisetskaya reflects on her personal and professional odyssey, presenting a unique view of the life of a Soviet artist during the troubled period from the late 1930s to the 1990s.  See more details below


Maya Plisetskaya, one of the world's foremost dancers, rose to become a prima ballerina of Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet after an early life filled with tragedy and loss. In this spirited memoir, Plisetskaya reflects on her personal and professional odyssey, presenting a unique view of the life of a Soviet artist during the troubled period from the late 1930s to the 1990s.

Editorial Reviews

Chicago Sun-Times
[A] wonderfully intimate and detailed new autobiography. . .This is a fascinating memoir. . .
Washington Post Book World
A memoir of the Terror, the Gulag and the Soviet arts, by the athletic prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet.
Deirdre Kelly
. . .[S]ocial history. . . by a dancer who transcends the mute language of her art to tell a universal story. . .deliciously subversive. . .
Toronto Globe & Mail
Publishers Weekly
This is much more than an artistic memoir it is a courageous account of an era. Plisetskaya was born in Moscow in 1925, joined the Bolshoi Ballet in 1943, and became one of its most acclaimed prima ballerinas (and one of the best-known in the West), performing into the 1990s. But as she makes clear, her life has been one of daily struggle. Plisetskaya's father, a rising apparatchik in the coal industry, was executed in 1935. Her mother, an actress, was then sentenced to eight years in prison. Taken in by a ballerina aunt, Pisetskaya was allowed to continue her dance training; but a pattern of persecution by authorities had been established. Even after she was well established at the Bolshoi, and despite years of pleading, Plisetskaya was forbidden to tour outside the country until 1959, and then she went under tight guard, always returning home, even during the years of the notable defections of Nureyev, Makarova and Baryshnikov. In Moscow, she was trotted out to perform for visiting dignitaries (Mao, Ribbentrop and Tito among them) and was routinely humiliated and artistically encumbered by a punitive bureaucracy. Plisetskaya says she's unable to put into words exactly why she never defected her marriage to a Russian composer was part of it. Every page attests to bitter, poignant regrets. Her account is sometimes rambling, sometimes garbled in translation; but Plisetskaya makes horrifyingly clear the life of an honored artist in her homeland: the artistic paucity (in contrast with the "Balanchine years" in the U.S.) is one element; the degradation of daily life for Soviet citizens is another; and Plisetskaya, as is her reputation, pulls no punches here. (Oct.) Forecast: Plisetskaya is amajor ballet star, and her memoirs will sell well among dance lovers. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.38(d)

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Chapter One

The Dacha and Sretenka Street

Many books begin with ruminations about one's earliest memories. Who remembered earlier, who started later. Should I look for another beginning?

    I began walking at eight months. This I don't remember. But my numerous relatives were thrilled by my early mobility. And their delight was the start of my self-awareness.

    My grandmother died in the summer of 1929. I remember her passing very clearly and distinctly. Our family rented a dacha, a summer house, near Moscow. And Grandmother, already looking waxy and haggard, spent long hours on an incongruous, nickel-plated bed in the large meadow in front of the house. A Chinese doctor was treating her. He would come to the house in a theatrically broad-brimmed black hat and make mysterious motions over Grandmother.

    That summer heaven sent me my first ballet message. Behind the plank fence, listing in places in the thick grass, stood a dark, boarded-up dacha. It belonged to the dancer Mikhail Mordkin, Anna Pavlova's partner. By that memorable summer he had already moved to the West, but his sister lived in a small outbuilding, kept an eye on the dacha, and grew aromatic Russian flowers. Their intoxicating smell remains in my memory to this day.

    I was a willful child, and they called me neslukh, the "not-listener." Impressed by an old postcard that I had seen with sailboats, I sent my first pair of sandals sailing downstream. Mother agonized: children's shoes were impossible to get then. You had to run all over Moscow searching. "Hard times, hard times," Mother repeated to herself. And I still keep hearing that to this day—hard times, hard times. My poor country.

    I played with a paper fastener until it got stuck up my nose. Mama took me to the village doctor in the cart of a talkative peasant. The doctor relieved my discomfort instantly.

    I couldn't stand my loving relatives, who seemed to be in a conspiracy to pinch my right cheek. They always fussed about how much I had grown since the last time. And I also hated going to bed and being forced to eat the milk noodles those same relatives stuffed me with, insisting that they would make me big and strong. Once they stuffed me until I threw up. Ever since, I shudder if I even hear the words.

    In Moscow we lived on Sretenka Street, number 23, apartment 3, on the top floor, the third. All threes. It belonged to my grandfather, Mikhail Borisovich Messerer, a dentist. It had eight rooms. They were all along one side, and their unwashed windows faced Rozhdestvensky Boulevard. A narrow corridor along the other side led to a smelly kitchen, whose single window revealed a filthy courtyard filled with plywood crates. The rooms were divided among Grandfather's grown children, except for the very last one, which was occupied by the virtuoso pianist Alexander Tsfasman. He had graduated from the Moscow Conservatory with a medal, but he went crazy for jazz, which was just becoming popular then, and forgot about classical music. Tsfasman was a great lover, in Gogol's phrase, "of strawberries." Adoring females were always making their way down the long corridor to his door. The dim lighting helped; the single source of light was a bare, fly-specked bulb on the cracked ceiling—an ordinary fixture once known as "Ilyich's bulb" (electricity was for a time represented as a gift from the great Vladimir Ilyich Lenin himself).

    A restless child, I would wander along the corridor, where I ran into the visiting ladies. To keep me from spilling the beans, our neighbor entered into hushed dialogues with me: "Mayechka, which one do you like better—the brunette or the blonde?"

    "The blonde, the blonde," I would say without hesitation.

    I always preferred the light-haired ones.

    The first door from the stairs was Grandfather's dentistry office. It was cold, with crooked floorboards, an ancient, sagging glassed-in case for his instruments, and the leading character—the drill. Leaning over his patient's open mouth, Grandfather would press his foot on the worn metal pedal. It turned a wheel with a strap that kept slipping, interrupting the session.

    The focal point of the office was a cast-iron Napoleon on a horse. This was in keeping with the solemnity of the moment, as if to remind the patient, Bear in mind—we are all mortal!

    A large colored engraving, framed in glass, hung on the wall. It depicted a woman's head with a heavy bun at her nape. The poor woman's cheek was open and the viewer could see all thirty-two of her teeth, plus the inner anatomy of the face all the way to the ear. This was surrealism, to use today's terminology, worthy of the brush of Salvador Dalí. I saw something similar a few years ago at the Dalí Museum, which rises like eggshells to meet the southern Spanish sky of Figueras, close to where Dalí was born. But back then I had no idea of the scandalous artist's existence. I was simply afraid to be alone in Grandfather's office.

    The apartment had no bathroom. Actually, there was one, but we didn't use it for bathing. Our nanny, Varya, and Kuzma, her mighty, mustachioed janitor husband, lived there. Washing was always a problem. The water would be heated on the kerosene, or Primus, stove, until it reached the proper temperature, a long, boring time to wait. The kitchen faucet was messy in some way and splashed the whole kitchen with icy water. To restrain it, we blocked the flow with an old sign, its enamel peeling, that advertised, "Dentist Messerer; Soldiers free." It had hung by the front door since before the war of 1914.

    Another detail from Grandfather's apartment sticks in my mind. In the room next to the office, in a dark wooden frame, hung a clumsy copy of the famous painting The Princess Tarakanova. Water poured into the prison window and mice raced around the bed on which the countess stood in a lovely, theatrical pose and a low-cut velvet dress. She was in a near-faint, her hair tumbling about her shoulders. I was afraid of that painting too. And I felt very sorry for the princess.

    In my most difficult days, when the KGB decided to consider me a British spy and a car with three burly men followed me around Moscow and stood round the clock beneath my windows on Shchepkinsky Passage, I recalled that painting. Poor Countess Tarakanova. In impotent rage and pain caused by absurdity, lies, betrayal, and idiocy, I wanted to dance a ballet that would let me share my bitterness.

    Many years later I told Roland Petit about my tormented dreams.

Excerpted from I, Maya Plisetskaya by Maya Plisetskaya. Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Meet the Author

Maya Plisetskaya travels around the world performing and lecturing. At the Bolshoi’s gala celebrating her 75th birthday, President Vladimir Putin presented her with Russia’s highest civilian honor, the medal for service to the Russian state, second degree.

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