Maya Mikhailovna Plisetskaya, (Moscow, Nov. 20, 1925 – Munich, May 2, 2015)
In Sanskrit, the word “maya” has many meanings. It is that which exists but changes constantly. It refers to the goddess of prosperity, power and love, of the material. It is the magic that seems but is not. It is palpable reality, the reflection of what we believe ourselves to be - in plain talk, illusion. Curiously and coincidentally, on Saturday a mythical creature died, one who transcended illusion, an illusion that in her case was doubly so because she also embodied it: Maya Plisetskaya.
She was much more than a dancer, than an actress, than a musician. Just as we might say, “Where conductors are concerned, there’s Carlos Kleiber and the rest,” “Where sopranos are concerned, there’s Maria Callas and the rest,” and “Where pianists are concerned, there’s Martha Argerich and the rest,” where dancers are concerned, there’s simply Maya and the rest. As with Callas, nothing was lacking, nothing was superfluous. Hers was the perfect musical expression. She was an esthetic phenomenon. She was characterized by an indefinable, non-transferable quality that went beyond magnetism. She irradiated the link between heaven and earth. She was a tree with roots in the ground and branches reaching out to heaven.
I remember her much-anticipated debut at Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colón in 1975, when I was a teenager. She was 50, an age at which many of her colleagues retire. Great expectations clashed with pessimistic predictions. For days, her debut was the talk of musical Buenos Aires, capital of a country immersed in chaos reeking of nightmare. Intrigues and controversy surrounded that Swan Lake. The corps de ballet followed Jack Carter’s choreography, with different ballerinas playing Odette and Odile. Maya was used to the Russian version and wanted to dance both roles. Carter’s version won out, but Maya didn’t give up and had her way in a recital. Those performances of Swan Lake marked the beginning of her romance with Argentine audiences. Maya returned year after year. She danced in stadiums and on television, something previously unheard of. She had unleashed an unprecedented interest in dance.
How could anyone forget the entrance of the swan queen, her superhumanly graceful arm movements eliciting an astonished gasp from 4,000 patrons? That veteran Odette embodied an entirely different musicality and style, every gesture at one with the music. Eschewing all showiness, she was pure spirit. The interminable ovations that followed were performances in themselves, with Maya taking bows in different poses.
Then came her farewell recital, in which she danced The Black Swan, replacing the customary fouettes with unparalleled, fierce elegance, and The Dying Swan, which she was forced to reprise for a frenzied audience. But she changed the choreography. She was a different swan. And again, the ovations and an indelible final image: the raised curtain, the stage covered with flowers, the technical staff and corps de ballet applauding from behind, Maya on her knees, overcome with emotion before 4,000 new devotes who had adopted her and waved goodbye with white handkerchiefs, sealing the bond between an artist and patrons who felt Maya danced for each one of them.
She had to to make a comeback, and she did, with a timeless Carmen, Soviet-like, sort of mechanical and absolutely captivating, and a Bolero, choreographed by Maurice Béjart, that for once made me enjoy and understand Ravel’s work. In that ballet, Maya was as a deity who catalyzed music, making it accessible in a compendium and apotheosis of dance from its origins to the present.
She belonged to an imperial trilogy that included her contemporaries Margot Fonteyn and Alicia Alonso. Something nevertheless set her apart. She was at once feminine and androgynous; she danced with the energy of a man. She astonished audiences with the unprecedented acrobatics of her Kitri in Don Quixote and her very personal Aurora, Juliet, Laurencia, Zarema, Phrygia and Raymonda, whereas the romantic Giselle agreed less well with her temperament. And when classical ballet tried to confine her, she went looking for someone to rescue her. Swiftly came Alberto Alonso, Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart. From Carmen, La rose malade and Bolero to Isadora, Anna Karenina, The Seagull and The Madwoman of Chaillot.
Stalin had her father executed by firing squad and her mother, Raquel, a beautiful Jewish silent-film actress film from whom she inherited her wide-eyed look, was sent to a concentration camp. Maya was adopted by her aunt and uncle, Sulamith and Asaf Messerer. At the age of 4, she took to the stage, and thrived. Witness to the Great War and survivor of a regime she represented and detested, she was allowed out as a trophy and export. Successor to the great Galina Ulanova, she in no way resembled her.
Unyielding, Maya retired grudgingly, never completely. When her legs couldn’t go on, he arms, still incomparable wings, did, and at 80 she performed in her friend Béjart’s Ave Maya. Her charm, learning, intellect and intelligence earned her such friends as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Rubinstein, Pierre Cardin and Marc Chagall. In a revealing autobiography – I, Maya Plisetskaya – and two essential DVDs – Diva of Dance and Maya – she told of her life with her inseparable companion since 1958, Rodion Shchedrin, who composed many of her ballets. The DVDs capture a wondrous game of looks, winks and complicities between two people who love each other and include anecdotes featuring leaders, tyrants, dictators, artists and thinkers, from Mao to Yves Saint Laurent. Maya doesn’t judge; she only remembers, glancing once in a while at Rodion, who smiles conspiratorially. The awards, degrees and decorations are unnecessary, as are the documentaries that will deal with the fathomless Maya.
In November, she would have turned 90, and she was getting ready to celebrate at full blast, but a heart attack prevented it. She is no longer Maya, free thanks to her art and her humanity. She is now eternal reality.
Sebastian Spreng is a Visual Artist and Classical Music Writer.