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Context (Moscow Times)
November 11-17, 2005
Living Legend
Moscow celebrates the 80th birthday of prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya with a four-evening festival of dance.

By Raymond Stults

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and well into the 1980s, Maya Plisetskaya reigned as undisputed queen of the Bolshoi Theater's ballet troupe. To celebrate her 80th birthday, which falls on Nov. 20, the Bolshoi has concocted a glittering festival of dance, commencing on Wednesday with three nights of performances on the theater's New Stage and ending a week from Sunday with a gala evening at the Kremlin Palace. On hand throughout the festivities will be the great ballerina herself, together with her husband of nearly half a century, the distinguished composer Rodion Shchedrin.

The festival begins with two classics that formed a fundamental part of Plisetskaya's repertoire: Pyotr Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" on Wednesday, with the dual role of Odette and Odile, which Plisetskaya first danced in 1947, falling to the Bolshoi's current lead ballerina, Svetlana Zakharova; and, on Thursday, Ludwig Minkus' "Don Quixote," which features the wonderfully versatile Maria Alexandrova as Kitri, a part Plisetskaya first assumed in 1950.

The final festival evening at the New Stage, on Nov. 18, will see a revival of "Carmen Suite," a work that premiered at the Bolshoi in 1967 and brought with it perhaps Plisetskaya's greatest artistic triumph. The score is Shchedrin's arrangement of music from Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen," and the dancing recreates the original work of Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso. Accompanying "Carmen Suite" that evening will be a new choreographic rendering by Bolshoi ballet artistic director Alexei Ratmansky of Igor Stravinsky's "The Card Game," which was first danced in New York 68 years ago to steps by George Balanchine.

The final festival evening at the Kremlin Palace on Nov. 20, Plisetskaya's actual birthday, has the title "Don Quixote" -- but it seems likely to bear no more than a partial resemblance to the Minkus ballet scheduled three nights earlier, and it is almost certain to have in store some delightful surprises. In charge, as director, will be Dmitry Chernyakov, heretofore only known for his inventive approach to opera and spoken drama. And invited to dance along with the Bolshoi's own artists will be stars from St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater, London's Royal Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet and the Berlin State Ballet, as well as members of less conventional dance companies from Russia, Spain and Cuba.

Born in Moscow in 1925, Plisetskaya seemed destined to embark on an artistic career, with an actress mother whose sister and brother, Sulamith and Asaf Messerer, numbered among the leading lights of the Bolshoi ballet troupe in the years between the two world wars and whose second brother, Azary Messerer, was a well-known stage actor of the same era.

Like many others of her generation, Plisetskaya suffered enormously from the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s. At age 11, she witnessed the arrest of her father, which eventually led to his execution, and then found herself effectively orphaned with the subsequent arrest and three-year imprisonment of her mother. Thanks, however, to her unmistakable talent and the sympathy of her teachers, Plisetskaya retained a place among the pupils of the Moscow Choreographic Academy and, upon graduation in 1943, was immediately invited to join the Bolshoi's ballet company.

As can be seen from the dates of her first Odette/Odile and Kitri, Plisetskaya quickly rose from minor to major roles. But her real flowering on the Bolshoi stage only took place following the retirement in 1960 of the theater's great mid-20th-century star, Galina Ulanova. Performing in such works as "Carmen Suite" and the Yury Grigorovich-choreographed "Legend of Love," she displayed an uncanny ability to move with ease from the classics to ballets that involved -- at least by Soviet standards -- choreography of a contemporary sort.

The slim, lithe figure of Plisetskaya on stage is likely to remain indelibly imprinted in the minds of all who witnessed it, as must also the extraordinary energy, agility and rhythmic precision she brought to her dancing. Equally unforgettable were the movements of her arms and hands, which vied in perfection with those of her legs and feet.

In the early 1970s, following an inspiring encounter with Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, Plisetskaya began to combine dancing with her own choreography. "It was my heaven-sent destiny," she later remarked. First came a setting of Leo Tolstoy's novel "Anna Karenina." An instant hit, it played more than 100 times at the Bolshoi between 1972 and 1985. Later she turned to Anton Chekhov for inspiration, first taking on his play "The Seagull" and later his short story "Lady With a Lapdog." All three were set to scores by Shchedrin and, of course, all of them starred Plisetskaya herself.

In addition to the festivities planned by the Bolshoi, the Illyuzion movie theater is offering a chance from Monday through Nov. 20 to see the dancing of Plisetskaya as captured on film. And the Moscow House of Photography is organizing an exhibition of photos of the ballerina at the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall from Wednesday to the end of November.