Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


Maya Plisetskaya

Yale University Press, 2001.

It happened on April 30, 1937.  At dawn, a few hours before May 1, early in the morning.  Around five, the stairs creaked beneath the leaden weight of sudden steps.  They had come to arrest Father.  These predawn arrests have been described often in literature, shown in films and on stage.  But believe me, living through one is very frightening.  Strangers.  Roughness.  The search.  The whole house upside down.  My mother, unkempt, pregnant with a big belly, weeping and clutching.  My little brother screaming, rudely awakened.  My father, white as snow, dressing with trembling hands.  He was embarrassed.  The neighbours’ faces were remote.  And I – eleven years old, skinny, scared, not understanding what was going on, my childish head filled with arabesques and attitudes.

The father would be shot.  His crime?  Being a friend of a friend of Trotsky.Then the mother was taken way.  She was given eight years.  Her crime?  For not denouncing, her husband she was an ‘enemy of the people.’  She was sent by cattle car to the gulag in Kazakhstan.  There she lived in a chicken coup.  After eighteen months, her daughter was allowed to visit her mother.  In the meantime the eleven year old had had to deal with stooges.

Much later, I realised that the repulsive short-haired women (who stank so terribly that we had to open all the windows after their visits) who interrogated me so closely and suspiciously about mother and Mita [an aunt] were from the orphanage, where they were planning to send me, the hopeless orphan, daughter of an enemy of the people…..Just think how many deceits were perpetrated then in our miserable, god-forsaken, blood-covered Russia.

After three weeks, the daughter had to return to Moscow.  And do what?  Put on a concert for the NKVD, the people who had shot her father and taken away her mother.  This was in a nation that had bad form for using young ballerinas as ‘kept women.’

This was all part of the Terror, the Great Purge of Stalin.  The regime may be the cruellest the world has known.  The daughter would survive to be a dancer of a beauty that few have seen surpassed.  Truly, Providence works in ways that are hard to fathom.  And to make it harder for Maya later, she was of Lithuanian Jewish descent.

The author starts by saying: ‘I wrote this book myself.’  I believe her.  It is a remarkable testament to a remarkable woman.  She trained with the Bolshoi and soon became a star.  But her strength and intelligence made her suspect.  Three KGB men tracked her in a car – permanently.  They had their own nonsense.

We recommend that you not go.  But you decide on your own.  But I wouldn’t go.  In any case, we’ve already let them know that you’re not free.  But decide for yourself.

You see immediately that she was fiercely bright and had a wicked sense of humour.  Naturally, the wives in the Party could not stand her.

The Party wives were angry, envious, enraged.  Everything they did was bovine and rhinolike.  After every reception, I sensed the number of my enemies – male, and most important, female – increase.

If you have been to Soviet Russia you will understand her revulsion at the hotels, meals, and aircraft.  Plisetskaya was too feisty to be allowed to dance at Covent Garden.  She put on a special Swan Lake in Moscow in 1956 as a form of protest.  The theatre was overflowing.  She saw a KGB hood (Serov) in the audience.

I looked at the colourless, bedbug face of a eunuch, thinning pale hair neatly parted.  A flash – a horrible association.  He looked so much like Stalin’s Commissar of Death Yezhov….Is it the executioners’ profession or nature that makes them resemble one another?  I have never had a greater success in Swan Lake in my life…..From the very beginning…the theatre burst out in ecstatic welcoming applause….It was time to do the glissade, my legs were going to stiffen.  But I couldn’t hear the music for the thunder.  And I wanted to let the authorities have it.  Let Serov and his wifie burst their gall bladders.  Bastards!….Just what the authorities had feared.  A demonstration!

This is how one observer saw it.

We can feel the steely contempt and defiance taking hold of her dancing.  When the curtain came down on the first act, the crowd exploded.  KGB toughs muffled the audience’s applauding hands and dragged people out of the theatre kicking, screaming, and scratching. By the end of the evening the government thugs had retreated, unable (or unwilling) to contain the public enthusiasm.  Plisetskaya had won.

She found that she had a taste for style.  ‘I sensed intuitively that fashion was an art form.’  If you have been to GUM, you will know that you will not find fashion there.  But she teamed with Pierre Cardin who adored her.  ‘Pierre created ten costumes for Karenina.  Each more beautiful than the others.  Real masterpieces.  They should be on display in museums….The colour range of the costumes is divinely radiant.’  Pierre Cardin said that he travelled to Moscow more than thirty times just to see her dance.

She fell in love with the composer Rodion Schedrin.  At their first meeting, she asked Schedrin if he could transcribe the musical theme of Charlie Chaplin’s film Limelight just by listening to a record.  (That is the tune I request from bar pianists around the world.)  They were a strikingly good looking couple.  But until they were married, they could not share the same hotel room.  When they got to sleep together, they could hear the KGB start the car engine every now and then to try to get warm.  The marriage, when it came, was rock solid.

When Ingrid Bergman met her, Bergman had tears in her eyes after seeing her Swan Lake.  ‘You told about love without a single word.  You have divine arms.  I lost all sense of time….Would you like to play Anna Karenina?  Could you tell her drama without words?’  When the author first met Jacqueline Kennedy she got ‘You’re just like Anna Karenina.’

She hailed a cab in Paris.  It was a long ride in traffic.  She was sorting her money.  ‘And suddenly in pure Russian, with prerevolutionary pronunciation (I could almost hear the old orthography) ‘I won’t take your money Miss Plisetskaya.  This ride is in lieu of a bouquet.’  That was a fine gesture, but not as costly as that of an Australian chiropractor who flew at his own expense from Melbourne to the other end of the world to attend to one of her many injuries.

One critic wrote of her debut in the U S:

She burst like a flame on the American scene in 1959.  Instantly she became a darling to the public and a miracle to the critics. She was compared to Maria Callas, Theda Bara and Greta Garbo.

After one performance at the Met, she got a thirty minute standing ovation.  Nureyev saw her debut in Don Quixote and said ‘I sobbed from happiness.  You set the stage on fire.’  Sol Hurok said that she was the only ballerina after Pavlova to give him a ‘shock of electricity’ when she came on stage. 

Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy came on stage after she first performed before them.  She and Bobby became close.  ‘With me Robert Kennedy was romantic, elevated, noble, and completely pure.  No seduction, no passes.’  Bobby died the day after he was shot.  She was scheduled to do the pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty at the new Met.  She was distraught.  ‘My heart was breaking.  I had to do something.  Scream!….let my pain out somehow.’  The house announced she would dance The Dying Swan as a tribute to the memory of Bobby.

The curtain rose slowly.  The audience stood up.  Quietly.  But I could hear them rise from where I was on the stage.  They all got up.  Icy stillness.  The harp’s four introductory arpeggios.  The solo cello began singing the melody.  I lost myself in the dance.  The spotlight pulled my hands, arms, and neck out of the darkness.  People were frozen still.  No one moved.  Stifled sobs joined the music.  From all sides.  Like streams of tears.  The dance was over.  The spotlight held my final, fatal pose for a long time.  And then faded…..There was no applause.  Just a sorrowful silence.  The people stood there wordlessly.  The curtain covered the darkness of the stage ever so slowly.  ‘Silence, you are the best of what I have heard,’ Boris Pasternak said.  And the most horrible, I thought that evening.

She had met Nureyev with Margot Fonteyn in London. 

We had gone to each other’s performances more than a few times, and we participated in the same concerts in Japan and Australia.  I was always impressed, no matter what we were doing, by her impeccable manners, and the perfection of her breeding.  I had never met a better brought up person, and not only in our rather vulgar ballet world – in our entire life.  How I envied her ability to get on with people.

We can leave technique to the experts, but mention two things:

The Frenchman [a partner] had strong and smart hands.  I like that expression for the hands of my partners: smart hands.  You can’t dance with dumb hands.  They’re bound to drop you, hold you too long, or rush you….For ballet folk, beer is better than any medicine.  It relaxes the muscles and gives them rest.

The book finishes in 1993.  Russia was in chaos and Maya and her husband were living in Munich – where she would leave us.  The order and cleanliness and sense of purpose must have dazzled them.  Why had she not defected like Nureyev and others?  One of her reasons was a fear that the KGB would arrange an accident and break her legs.  Mother Russia has produced its share of giants of art – and has been uniformly cruel to most of them.

The Financial Times said in 2005 (her eightieth birthday):

She was, and still is, a star, ballet’s monstre sacré, the final statement about theatrical glamour, a flaring, flaming beacon in a world of dimly twinkling talents, a beauty in the world of prettiness.

If as a father you have endured taking daughters to ballet classes on the weekends at the other end of town, sitting in a car for hours writing legal opinions while footy crowds drift noisily by, and sitting through endless concerts for children, your ardour for this art form might cool.  It did for me, but I have been fortunate to see Plisetskaya, Fonteyn, and Baryshnikov in the flesh.  Two of my top ten nights at the theatre were ballets – Anna Karenin in Budapest in about 1998 and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in Paris in about 1993.  The Karenin was done to music from Tchaikovsky’s fifth and sixth centuries.  It was a gem.  A favourite DVD is the Plisetskaya version to the music of Schedrin recorded in 1975.  Nothing could be more Russian – or more universal and timeless.  The production is near perfect and it conveys the artistry of this great prima ballerina assoluta. If this book were not here, I would have included one on Callas.  The comparison is often made, and it is fair.  Each had a commanding mystique or magic on the stage that could change the way you think about the world.  That is why this book is here

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