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Book Review: I, Maya Plisetskaya
by Maya Plisetskaya;Yale University Press

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 21 January 2003 - In the first sentence of her book, I, Maya Plisetskaya, first published in Russia in 1994, the Russian prima ballerina comments on the fact that it took her " a long time" to write, three years in fact she tells us over the page. A pertinent question today might be why we had to wait another eight years for the English translation of this immensely readable, often amusing, but hauntingly evocative account of what it was like to be a Soviet artist in the Stalin era.

Having already been given a copy of the book in French* by the award-winning translator, Lily Denis some seven years ago, I re-read it with as much pleasure, sadness, and horrified fascination as the first time. It's more a diary than an academic work, an almost day to day account which begins with the insistence that she wrote the truth, "and that not everybody likes the truth", by way of explanation for the controversial acceptance of it, to say the least ,particularly from the Bolshoi.

Thanks no doubt to the extraordinary details in her diaries, the vivid exactitude with which she writes is quite simply hair-raising, the book finally being more concerned with how politics affected the artists' lives, rather than with the ins and outs of the roles she danced. "No matter what end of my childhood I look at," she writes, "it all turns to politics, to the Stalin terror".

She was eleven when her father, whom she loved dearly was arrested and imprisoned, and it was not until shortly before she began her book that she received confirmation the he had been executed by a firing squad. Her mother, later released, was sent to the Gulag, a camp for enemies of the people, for simply being his wife.

From the beginning she regarded Communism as nonsense, a catastrophe where society was forced to lie to survive. Now, she comments bitterly, "they give you awards for what they used to execute you for."

From the moment she joined the Bolshoi Ballet in 1943, her rebellious personality and lack of interest in Party matters made her a natural target, and her life became a nightmare. Yet she never defected. She was Russia's prize-winning ballerina, but she endured constant harassment from both colleagues and Party officials, and was refused permission to tour with the company until 1959. By then she was thirty-three and a half.

In the chapter, "Why I did not stay in the West", one of the reasons Plisetskaya gives is because she was too afraid. "They'd arrange a car crash, squash my legs.... I was afraid they would kill me."

Her fears were well-grounded, for there had been reports in the Russian press that the KGB "on orders from on high, was planning an accident to break Nureyev's legs". Certainly, there are enough witnesses to corroborate with the fact that Rudolf Nureyev, after his defection did indeed live in fear of his life, but he had had no choice. If he had returned to Russia then, he would probably never have danced again. As he himself recalled, pieces of glass were thrown on the stage at him by people paid to sabotage his performance. "Try living then, not now, brave people ", comments the Russian ballerina to disbelievers.

She recounts the story of a "fairy-tale" bouquet of unusual salmon coloured roses she received during her second American tour in 1962. The exquisite flowers were from Nureyev, to congratulate her on her success, and to share his hope of dancing with her in the future. Knowing that any form of communication with him, no matter how involuntary carried the "threat of the grimmest repercussions", he had forestalled any reply by enclosing neither address nor telephone number, and the very next day, there was the KGB spy, sniffing the roses admiringly, and asking her what she would do if Nureyev, said to be in New York, sent her flowers. Her reaction was one of intense fear.

But frankly, the chapter "How We Were Paid", which marked me most when I first read the book, was even more appalling on second reading. It wasn't so much the poor pay the dancers received, the bulk of their earnings going to the Russian state to support exotic vacations for the "Party fat cats", but the descriptions of the consequences of the loss of pay. Performers on tour in the U.S. were expected to survive on $5 a day, and to avoid fainting from hunger they would turn to cat and dog food.

"You felt very strong after animal food", she writes, "We fried canine beefsteaks between two hotel irons, boiled hotdogs in the bathroom. Steam billowed out from beneath doors on every floor.... all the immersion heaters turned on at the same time blew fuses and stopped elevators."

"A bacchanalia of locusts "descended on hotels where buffets were wiped clean in minutes, and those still hungry "grabbed the staff by their shirt fronts demanding more. It was shameful. Hideous."

Brutally honest, Plisetskaya's book deals with very serious issues , while on the individual level, no one is spared, least of all Yuri Grigorovich, who ran the Bolshoi Ballet for 30 years. In a chapter, "Untitled", or, "How the Bolshoi Ballet Was Destroyed", she speaks freely of what she calls his "fast descent downhill", how he was "dried up" by power.

She speaks ferociously of how to obtain roles in productions, "by taking the chief choreographer 's car to be serviced, preparing dinner for his guests and washing up for him afterwards, criticising his enemies and complimenting him, "Our midget Stalins", she informs the reader, "were the most susceptible to flattery". But the point she is repeatedly making is: it all boiled down to politics.

Happily for ardent dance lovers, she does write between the lines of her roles, of "Swan Lake", "The Dying Swan", of her interpretation of Mytha, Queen of the Wilis in "Giselle", and of her own works, "Anna Karenina", "The Seagull", and "Lady with a Lapdog". But perhaps not as much as some admirers would have liked.

Proudly, she did not allow a ghost writer or editor near her book, and so it is her own voice that comes through, repetitive, disorganised, but oh, so very true. The condition she imposed was that neither a word nor a comma should be changed, and it wasn't, although the result is rather like a one-sided telephone call from a loquacious friend, where you can't get a word in edgeways. When you put the phone down at the end, there's that sensation of regret mingled with relief. And an overwhelming sense of loss.

* Moi, Maia Plissetskaia by Maia Plissetskaia was first published in Russia in 1994 , before being translated by Lily Denis, and published in France in 1995, Gallimard.

There are only 17 photographs in the French edition, often three to a page, while the English edition boasts up to 70 full-page reproductions.

I, Maya Plisetskaya

I, Maya Plisetskaya
by Maya Plisetskaya
Hardcover: 448 pages
Yale University Press, New Haven - London (1 October 2001)
ISBN: 0300088574

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance from Paris. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

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