Maya Plisetskaya, the great Russian ballerina, died today in Munich at the age of 89. I have strong memories of her dancing, all of them in Portland, where the first time I saw her she was dancing her signature solo, “The Dying Swan” (choreography Fokine; music Saint-Saens, at of all places the Memorial Coliseum when Stars of the Bolshoi appeared there in 1965). She was 40 and she was furious. Vendors were going up and down the aisles selling popcorn; people were talking over the music; every sinuous move of her seemingly boneless arms, every stab of her pointe shoes, was as terrifying as a real swan in pursuit of a human toddler. Beautiful they are, those birds, but they are also treacherous.
She came back in the mid-’80s, also with Stars of the Bolshoi, and danced a ballet that had been made for her based on Anna Karenina, very elegant, very expressive, and of course the show ended with not one but two performances of “The Dying Swan.” By this time she was in her early 60s and I remember Patricia Miller, another gorgeous ballerina then dancing with Pacific Ballet Theatre, saying to me as we left for the lobby at intermission, “You’re not going to catch me in pointe shoes when I’m 62.”
That time, Plitsetskaya taught a master class in the PBT studios, which in those days were in what used to be the Masonic annex to the Portland Art Museum. I took my daughter, then about 11, to watch her teach, and lordy, she was tough. Alice was riveted, watched for two hours, while I took 60 pages of notes. At one point, Plisetskaya squeezed none too gently the thigh of a very talented dancer from Eugene whose name I can’t now remember, and said, “Must be harrrrrrd. Like irrrrron,” and turned and looked at Alice and winked at her.
She was tough, that lady (a thorn in the side of the Soviet regime, as well as the administration of the Bolshoi Academy when she was a student there) and she was beautiful, and smart, and passionate; and all of that showed in her dancing.
According to her obituary in today’s New York Times, at her 80th birthday celebrations, Plisetskaya – who did not defect to the West to find artistic freedom as did the younger Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolph Nureyev, and Natalia Makarova – summed up her career thus: “I danced all of classical ballet and dreamed of something new.”
Fokine’s Dying Swan was something new indeed, when he made it for Anna Pavlova. With Plisetskaya’s death, as far as I’m concerned, the swan has sung her last song, danced her last dance.