By Patricia Boccadoro
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."
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."
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
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.
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
"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."
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.
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
* 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.
are only 17 photographs in the French edition, often three to a page,
while the English edition boasts up to 70 full-page reproductions.
by Maya Plisetskaya
Yale University Press, New Haven - London (1
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 Culturekiosque.com.