Melissa

Maya Plisetskaya Autobiography

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Maya Plisetskaya has written her autobiography. It received a pretty good review in today's New York Times.

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Is anyone else on the site reading this?? I am driving my friends to drink, as I keep ringing them up and forcing them to listen to particularly interesting passages. What did people think about the 'disgraced Swan Lakes' and the balletomanes who were interviewed by the KGB for clapping too much? How did you react to the treatment of corps de ballet dancers on the American tour?

If you haven't yet put this book on your Christmas list, then I suggest you do so now.

- Wendy

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Wendy -- I am reading this book but have not finished it yet. I was refraining from reporting on it until I was finished, but I know how it is when you want to share the experience with someone. I think I'm taking so long just to savor it. Yes, it is fascinating. A word of warning, though, to anyone who may pick it up. It is more about the life of an artist in Stalinist Russia than it is specifically about ballet. It could just as easily have been written about an opera singer or a composer. It is also difficult to read. Plisetskaya rejected the help of professional writers and chose to rely on her own chatty and sometimes disorganized prose style. She has a tendency to interrupt her own narrative with an anecdote totally out of time, and since timelines are not made definitive anyway, the reader's sense of context can sometimes be jarred. She also has the Russian style of using the first name and patronymic, in other words, the first name and then middle name based on the father's first name -- Anna Ivanovna means Anna the daughter of Ivan, and Pavel Ivanovitch means Pavel the son of Ivan -- because these are titles of respect. She can use these respectfully or very sarcastically. Then she uses initials, so that sometimes a person ends up having three different names; it gets to be like reading War and Peace.

However, all that said, it is a marvelous picture of the frustration, terror, paranoia, and game playing that went on for Soviet artists, especially during Stalin's life. She spares no detail and is often bitter, a bitterness that she has earned, in recounting the stories of people who held her captive and refused to let her travel abroad during her twenties and early thirties. The confusion and trepidation of this period was particularly visited on her in that her father was executed by the Stalinist regime and her mother exiled for 8 years. At the same time, her aunt and uncle were lionized and made artistic heroes of the Soviet. Maya seemed to bring out the worst in the Soviet operatives; she resisted them and became adept at knowing just how much to say when she was called in for questioning. They wanted her to dance for them, but they wanted to keep her just dispirited enough to stay under their grip. I don't know how any of these people lived through it.

I was particularly appalled by the per diem arrangements for touring Bolshoi dancers. They were, at one point, buying dog food to eat and heating it up over the registers of NYC hotel rooms, causing a decidedly strange odor that drifted into the corridors. Sol Hurok saved the day by giving them free lunches because they were fainting at rehearsals.

I could go on and on, but I have to read some more.

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There are few books that I approached more enthusiastically than this one, already knowing something of Plisetskaya's career and eager to learn more. However, as Nora points out there is much less in this book that is actually about ballet than one might have hoped. I agree that at times it is difficult to read and it suffers badly from not having an index, which I feel is vital in a book of this kind.

It is a very selective kind of book, with little or no mention of the other artists with whom she worked over the years. Nor does she tell us much about her personal life. She doesn't for example tell us about her marriages before Shchedin, one of which was to Maris Liepa; after all, this is supposed to be an autobiography.

Although Plisetskaya puts names to all of the soviet officials that thwarted her progress, she doesn’t put names to the unscrupulous impresarios that were making shady deals with the Russian authorities and pocketing huge sums for themselves while the poor dancers were eating dog food. Perhaps the laws of libel prevented publication.

This is an informative book, but the tale that is told is more about soviet corruption than about ballet and for this reason I would only recommend it to those with an interest in that particular period of Russian history.

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Thanks for your comments, Mashinka and Nora, which I very much enjoyed reading.

Oh dear, was I getting too carried away? I suppose I was. (As usual.) And no I haven't finished it yet, either, but I couldn't wait to hear what other people thought. Though Russian names hold no terrors for me, I know some people find them difficult, so that's a good point to mention. (Thank you, Nora.)

Yes, it is about a particular period of history, though a very interesting one. I can remember reading accounts of the KGB following dancers around during the 60's and 70's and thinking that things like that couldn't possibly have been happening, not really; but they WERE happening. And it's true, as Mashinka points out, that Plisetskaya leaves things out. (Mind you, Karsavina never mentioned her first marriage, either - indeed, she hardly mentioned her personal life at all.) It may be that the things she doesn't say (or the people she doesn't mention) are as significant as those she does; you have to read the book carefully. I would love to read comments by others on such matters!! And, no, as you both say, there isn't so much about dancing itself in this book as many of us would like. I suspect that that omission, too, is revealing. It certain suggests to me that dancing was not what Plisetskaya found hardest in life.

I liked the book for the light it shed on back stage and government intrigues...and on the difficulties and compromises of a dancer's life. There are episodes that are particularly fascinating (that first visit to New York, for instance). But most of all I liked it because I felt I was hearing the voice of the real Maya Plisetskaya. (So, I was glad she'd written the book herself, in spite of its flaws.) This is a woman who is immensely talented and very, very strong. (I'm still brooding over those 800 Swan Lakes she says she danced..not to mention zillions of perfomances of other ballets.) She is also wonderfully determined and I would guess she was exhausting to work with (though she may not have realized that herself).

The kind of life she describes is very different (thank goodness) from the life most of us lead. But it's well worth reading about.

And I still say it's a great Christmas book.

Nora and Mashinka (and others), I would love to hear more of your thoughts.

- Wendy

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Please pardon me for asking a superficial question, but does the book include photographs?

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Yes, the book does contain photographs, some very good ones too. Interestingly, although Plisetskaya doesn't bring her story up to date she does include a recent picture of herself receiving an award from Putin.

The stories of the KGB guards following the dancers are all too true I'm afraid. I still vividly remember a horrible incident when the Bolshoi was in London in 1974. One of the leading male dancers was signing autographs for a group of children outside the theatre when one of two rough looking men called out to him. The dancer ignored him. The man called his name again, more urgently. The dancer still ignored him. The two men then grabbed an arm each and frog marched the dancer down the street. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I suppose it was the height of the cold war and of course the year Baryshnikov defected, but to me that didn't excuse such rough treatment of an artist. Thank God all that is in the past.

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Answering superficial questions is one of my strengths, Melissa!

Unfortunately, your question isn't superficial at all, but very sensible, since that's the sort of thing people will actually want to know.

And the answer is.....YES!

There are two sections containing (approximately - I'm not about to count them again)32 pages of photos. There are some family shots, one from a school performance, some early performance shots (40s, 50s), one with Kennedy, one at the White House, a studio shot of her as a young woman, one of Maya and her husband, an informal picture of Maya at her dacha, ones with famous people, ballets in the 60s and 70s etc. By the end of the first section, we're already into the more modern ballets. The second section starts with three Swan Lake pictures, but there are a lot from her own ballets, more famous people and then getting awards. There's another from Swan Lake taken in 1985 and a Dying Swan in 1993.

Sorry, that's probably a lot more than you wanted to know, but it gives you an idea.

- Wendy

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Oops - we've just posted at the same time, Mashinka. Wow, what a sinister story. I'm glad you told us that.

- Wendy

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Thanks, WJGlavis, for all the details about the pictures -- they sound wonderful. I must search for the book at my local Barnes & Noble.

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Amazon.com has it available and ready to ship within 24 hours. It's $24.50, which they say is $10.50 below the published price. If you order it from Amazon, PLEASE do so by clicking on the banner above and getting there from here, as the site gets a little commission! cool.gif

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I'm halfway through this book right now. My thoughts about it mirror Nora's. I, like Mashinka, am very frustrated by the lack of an index. Initially I actually began to write down some names on a sheet of paper so I could keep track of them. That was until I realized that she was tossing out names like candy to a crowd of parade-goers - I simply couldn't keep up! So I gave up. I also am finding the narrative to be choppy - that said, I do agree that we're truly hearing Plisetskaya's voice and perhaps with a ghost writer, that voice would've been watered down.

I've loved Russian history ever since high school when I took a course in it with a particularly difficult teacher. My one and only "F" on a term paper came from him - he said I offered nothing new to the subject. Perhaps that began a lifelong love with anything Russian. My daughter's experience at a Vaganova pre-professional school with Russian teachers has fed that love. And Plisetskaya's book continues it. One couldn't write about her ballet life without describing the politics - they're so entwined. She mentions this herself early on in a sort of apology for not writing a ballet book, so to speak.

A wonderful companion book is Valery Panov's "To Dance". His was written with a professional author and is much easier to read. But he tells some similar stories of the very same people. And very similar personal experiences. The Soviet regime was harsher on him as an artist, I believe, at least judging from what I've read so far in Plisetskaya's a/b, (notwithstanding what happened to her parents).

[ December 28, 2001: Message edited by: vagansmom ]

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Vagansmom, I wholeheartedly agree with your comments regarding Valery Panov's book To Dance. It was co-written by an author named George Feifer who is most famous for his novel "the Girl from Petrovka". Some years earlier he wrote a book of impressions of famous contemporary Russians, one of whom was Plisetskaya. I must have read the book getting on for 30 years ago now and can no longer remember the actual title. However he wrote quite vividly about Plisetskaya and she came across as a very steely personality indeed.

Plisetskaya's autobiography can actually be divided into two halves, the first half is Plisetskaya v Soviet officialdom, and the second half concerns her experiences in the west where she writes at length about Petit and Bejart. The personalities with whom she worked in her earlier years in Russia are completely ignored.

Both Panov and Plisetskaya paint a very gloomy picture of life in Soviet Russia, but to discover the other side of that picture try reading "Behind the Bolshoi Curtain" by the late Richard Collins, an English dance student and eventual corps member of the Bolshoi. Collins had a riotous time in Russia and writes a very truthful account of his life there full of warmth and humour. The Russians he met seem much the same as those I have met - full of kindness and generosity. It is a book that leaves you with a very warm feeling.

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re. photo with Putin: My guess is that Plisetskaya simply updated the photos for the English-language printing & did not write a new chapter to fill-in the seven-year gap between the publication of the Russian & English versions. The Plisetskaya autobiography was published in 1994, when Vladimir Putin was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg & nobody imagined that he would one day be President of the Russian Federation...least of all himself. Funny, too, about Plisetskaya's KGB stories, yet her tremendous pride in being awarded an accolade from the hands of the former head of the KGB/FSB. I guess that bygones can be bygones.

[ January 02, 2002: Message edited by: Jeannie ]

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I didn't go to the ballet in the 60s and 70s, and I haven't seen Maya Plisetskaya on video. Yet, I'm fascinated by everything Russian and the ballet. So this autobiography holds a natural interest for me.

A few questions for those more knowledgable: from reading this book (and the jacket) it sounds like Plisetskaya was THE Bolshoi ballerina, other than Galina Ulanova. Is that the case? Can anyone describe how she danced? What were her strengths?

Does anyone have video recommendations?

Although I am only about halfway through the book, I can only concur with what has already been said here. There is less about ballet than there is about the Soviet system. Although interesting, I find that a bit sad as Russian ballet under the Soviets would also be fascinating. It was clearly written for a Russian audience that is familiar with her career.

I am dumbstruck, however, to learn that she was married before Schedrin. This is a biography, as has been noted, and one would think the major points of her life would be covered. I now think she viewed it less of a biography than a chance to get some things off her chest.

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There's a video called Plisetskaya Dances that has a lot of her Kitri on it -- I think that was her great role, that and "Swan Lake." She and Ulanova were the great Bolshoi ballerinas (Ulanova was Kirov trained, but transferred to the Kirov). There's a wonderful video called "Stars of the Russian Ballet" with BOTH Ulanova and Plisetskaya, and I'm still jealous of people who got to see them night after night.

From video evidence and stories of friends, Plisetskaya had an extraordinary technique and was very dramatic. One of the "monstre sacres."

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Thanks Alexandra.

One of the failings of the book is that you really don't get a feel for how she danced. (Unlike, say, Allegra Kent's autobiography.) It's odd that she had extraordinary technique, because she downplays her technique in the book. She makes a point of saying she resents never having had the opportunity to study with Vaganova, as some of her contemporaries did (ie Ulanova). And she relates a story of Balanchine telling her she needs a good teacher, after she tells him she doesn't study with anyone. Thus, I thought she might have been like Fonteyn -- someone with flawed technique but great presence.

I'll take your advice and purchase the "Stars of the Russian Ballet" from Amazon. After first clicking the ad at the top of this page, of course.

biggrin.gif

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When I first became interested in ballet, Plisetskaya was the one people held up as being the super technician -- you'll see her turns on the video. She looks like a skater.

She may well not have been perfectly placed, as a Vaganova student would be. (And dancers are always hard on themselves, especially great ones.) I also think she was one who wanted to be able to forget the technique so she could tear up the stage. Even on film, you can sense she was an animal on stage.

I showed some of the Don Q footage to a class of dancers once -- they'd never heard of her. They were astounded. They kept saying she danced like a man. (I don't think Maya P would have taken that as a compliment.)

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We all knew that there were KGB agents following the dancers around on tour (and of course were aware that Plisetskaya was not allowed on the 1959 Bolshoi tour of the US (their first appearance here). So when she turned up on the next tour she was an object of curiosity even before we saw her dance. BTW the KGB agents were not just burly men "in raincoats" - a lot of them were the wardrobe ladies, and one was a US interpreter who had been hired by the KGB to spy on the Russian dancers. Generally, the dancers were allowed to "socialize" with fans, briefly, at the stage door and in the lobby of their hotel (opposite Penn Station). The hotel was about 7 blocks from the Old Met, so another opportunity to socialize was to walk with them back to the hotel. Of course, no one could go up to their rooms. This produced feelings of amazement at the turn of history when, during the Kirov tours after the fall of the Soviet Union, we could happily picnic with Kirov dancers in their hotel rooms. The younger dancers who had not been on foreign tours prior the the change in government took this openness in stride, but when talking to the older dancers they, too, expressed amazement.

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Actually, felursus, she was on that tour in '59. I saw her do Dying Swan, and will never forget it because it was both the most awesome and then one of the most destroyed things I had ever seen. Awesome the first time, but, to me, totally ruined by an encore! I was pretty young, and not very knowledgeable, but I somehow knew that was wrong, and the moment which had been so incredible was wrecked.

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George Feifer in his book Russia close-up had this to say about the earnings of Russian Dancers in 1973.

Although the Soviet booking agency, StateConcert, demands standard fees for the Bolshoi's Western appearances, it pays Plisetskaya no more than fifty per cent, and often as little as ten per cent, of what similar artists would command for similar work.

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Interesting note, innopac. Thanks for reviving this old thread, it's good reading.

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Although the Soviet booking agency, StateConcert, demands standard fees for the Bolshoi's Western appearances, it pays Plisetskaya no more than fifty per cent, and often as little as ten per cent, of what similar artists would command for similar work.
To put this in perspective, he also writes:
It is their opportunity to earn not rubles but foreign currency that makes a small clique of Russian writers and performers fantastically rich by their own country's standards.
A half a loaf, but better than what was available to those who were not permitted to perform in the West.

Permission to earn Western currency was something that separated favored artists from those who were not so lucky or well connected.

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Although the Soviet booking agency, StateConcert, demands standard fees for the Bolshoi's Western appearances, it pays Plisetskaya no more than fifty per cent, and often as little as ten per cent, of what similar artists would command for similar work.
To put this in perspective, he also writes:
It is their opportunity to earn not rubles but foreign currency that makes a small clique of Russian writers and performers fantastically rich by their own country's standards.
A half a loaf, but better than what was available to those who were not permitted to perform (and thus to earn foreign currency) in the West.

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