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Maya Plisetskaya, the Bolshoi legend with a Spanish heart


Dancing, sometimes for her life, Plisetskaya, found solace in peforming strong women characters. Carmen was her favorite

Prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya was always fighting for something: for every role she played, for every minute on stage, for her life. Her biggest fight was with herself — to overcome her hatred towards those who had ruined her family. In 1939, Plisetskaya’s father was killed in Stalin’s purges, and her mother was sent to a labor camp (Gulag) in Kazakhstan.

Maya was just 13 at that time. She used to say that her whole life was a protest:

All my achievements are due to this fight. It’s the character that defines our fate

The future star of the Bolshoi appeared on stage for the first time in Svalbard, a remote island in the heart of the Arctic. At the time, Plisetskaya’s father was the head of the coal mines there. He later became Consul General of the Soviet Union to the region. Plisetskaya’s mother, who had been a silent film star, remembered that living conditions in Svalbard were so harsh that the family didn’t even have enough blankets to stay warm.

After the family’s return to Moscow, Plisetskaya said goodbye to her parents and moved to Ekaterinburg, then called Sverdlovsk, where she lived with her aunt, ballerina Sulamith Messerer. Her parents kept the news of their arrest secret from her, saying they had to go back to the Arctic. In the Ural Mountains town, Plisetskaya and her other relatives found shelter during the World War II bombardment of Moscow. Messerer was a major influence on Plisetskaya and worked tirelessly for her to continue her ballet training. She joined the Bolshoi in 1943.

Plisetskaya’s character was her most powerful weapon. Her endurance led her to become a world-renowned dancer, sought after by choreographers.

Yet her success didn’t guarantee happiness.

In 1956, Plisetskaya learned that she was not allowed to take part in the first tour of Soviet ballet abroad. That year, the premiere of Swan Lake was to take place in London. Plisetskaya was intended to play the leading role, but at the last moment she wasn’t allowed to leave the country. Plisetskaya blamed her family history.  “They always were very particular with me”, she said.

In 1959, however, Plisetskaya finally got the long-awaited permission to go abroad, and she toured the world as a member of the Bolshoi company. After her triumphant appearances in the United States, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev personally congratulated the ballerina. Nevertheless, every time Plisetskaya left the Soviet Union, the government required her husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin, to stay in Moscow as a guarantee that she would not defect.

Carmen’s rebellion

In 1960, Plisetskaya took over the position of prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theater from Galina Ulanova. She performed all the main roles in the most famous ballets.  By that time, she had already performed in Don Quixote, Faust, Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty, and many others. However, there was one more role she longed to play: Carmen. “Why did Georges Bizet write an opera instead of a ballet?”, Plisetskaya complained.

In 1966, Maya saw a performance by the National Ballet of Cuba during its tour in Moscow. She was so deeply impressed by the work of choreographer Alberto Alonso that she did not hesitate to ask him: “Could you create a ballet for me?” The Cuban said it would be a dream for him and they began to work on a ballet version of Carmen.

Plisetskaya asked various Soviet composers to compose the music, but nobody had the heart to compete with Bizet and deal with Soviet censorship.  In the end, her husband turned the opera into a ballet in less than a month.

The premiere took place in April 1967, and Plisetskaya remembered the complete silence that reigned in the hall. The ballet was banned for “sexual interpretation” of Carmen and for the “disfigured” music of Bizet. The Carmen Suite was called “sabotage by a rebellious couple”.

A year later, remembering her long struggle with Soviet bureaucracy, Plisetskaya  explained:

Carmen’s fights remind me of my own fights with bureaucrats, which overall lasted 40 years

When the dancer removed all the “erotic” scenes to save the ballet, the government lifted the ban.

Passion for Spain

Plisetskaya became interested in Spain in 1950, when she performed in Don Quixote. Later, this interest grew into a passion, which she discussed in  her autobiography I, Maya Plisetskaya (1997). “Where did I get such a passion for Spain and its culture, be it flamenco, corrida, a flower in the hair, or mantillas? I’m not sure myself, but there’s something that makes me feel mysteriously connected to all of this”, she wrote.

The prima ballerina made her first visit to Spain during the Bolshoi tour in 1983. In 1987, she accepted an offer to become the artistic director of the Spanish National Lyrical Ballet Theatre in Madrid, where she worked until 1990.

The first time Plisetskaya played Carmen in Madrid, she was so nervous that she asked for a tranquilizer for the first time in her career. “But when, at the end of the ballet, the audience shouted “Ole!”, my eyes got wet with tears…”, she wrote later. Among her many international awards and honors is the Commander of the Order of Isabella the Catholic (1991), which she received from the hands of King Juan Carlos I, the Prince of Asturias award for Arts (2005) and Gold Medal of Fine Arts of Spain, “for outstanding contribution to the development of national culture”(1991).

In 1990, after her contract with the National Lyrical Theatre expired, Plisetskaya decided to return to Moscow. Plisetstkaya wrote in her autobiography:

I couldn’t stand being alone, without Shchedrin. Phone calls were not enough. Life dictated that it was time I left Spain. But it was painful to do so. This is my country. My Carmen!..


Maya Plisetskaya was born in Moscow on  Nov. 20, 1925. From 1932 to 1936, she lived on the Arctic island of Svalbard. In 1941 and 1942, Plisetskaya lived with her aunt in Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg). At 18, she was accepted into corps de ballet of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. In 1960, when Galina Ulanova left the Bolshoi, she became a prima ballerina. Plisetskaya left the stage at 65.

In 1956, she married choreographer Maris Liepa, but they divorced after three months. Two years later, she married composer Rodion Shchedrin. They did not have children.

Plisetskaya  performed the most important roles of world ballet: choreography for the Carmen Suite, Death of the Rose and The Madwoman of Chaillot was created especially for her.

The dancer received many awards in the Soviet Union and Russia, as well as in France, Italy, Spain and Japan. In 1993, Plisetskaya received Spanish citizenship. It was her fourth citizenship: she also held passports from  Russia, Germany and Lithuania.

Maria Aleksandrova
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