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I, Maya Plisetskaya

I, Maya Plisetskaya

Maya Plisetskaya
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis
Foreword by Tim Scholl
Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 472
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    I, Maya Plisetskaya
    Book Description:

    Maya Plisetskaya, one of the world's foremost dancers, rose to become a prima ballerina of Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet after an early life filled with tragedy and loss. In this spirited memoir, Plisetskaya reflects on her personal and professional odyssey, presenting a unique view of the life of a Soviet artist during the troubled period from the late 1930s to the 1990s.Plisetskaya recounts the execution of her father in the Great Terror and her mother's exile to the Gulag. She describes her admission to the Bolshoi in 1943, the roles she performed there, and the endless petty harassments she endured, from both envious colleagues and Party officials. Refused permission for six years to tour with the company, Plisetskaya eventually performed all over the world, working with such noted choreographers as Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart. She recounts the tumultuous events she lived through and the fascinating people she met-among them the legendary ballet teacher Agrippina Vaganova, George Balanchine, Frank Sinatra, Rudolf Nureyev, and Dmitri Shostakovich. And she provides fascinating details about testy cocktail-party encounters with Khrushchev, tours abroad when her meager per diem allowance brought her close to starvation, and KGB plots to capitalize on her friendship with Robert Kennedy. Gifted, courageous, and brutally honest, Plisetskaya brilliantly illuminates the world of Soviet ballet during an era that encompasses both repression and cultural détente.Still prima ballerina assoluta with the Bolshoi Ballet, Maya Plisetskaya also travels around the world performing and lecturing. At the Bolshoi's gala celebrating her 75th birthday, President Vladimir Putin presented her with Russia's highest civilian honor, the medal for service to the Russian state, second degree. Tim Scholl is professor of Russian language and literature at Oberlin College. Antonina W. Bouis is the prize-winning translator of more than fifty books, including fiction, nonfiction, and memoirs by such figures as Andrei Sakharov, Elena Bonner, and Dmitri Shostakovich.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13071-3
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Tim Scholl

    Like opera enthusiasts who recognize a singer’s voice by its timbre or vibrato, dance-goers identify their favorites by idiosyncrasies of phrasing or line. Yet this relatively intimate knowledge of the workings of a dancer’s body may be all that is known about the dancer after decades on the stage. We rarely hear one speak.

    Ballet has been called a mute art, but Maya Plisetskaya, one of its greatest practitioners, was never quiet. The de facto prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet from Galina Ulanova’s retirement in 1960 until her own belated departure from the Bolshoi stage in 1990, Plisetskaya was...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. Chapter One The Dacha and Sretenka Street
    (pp. 1-4)

    Many books begin with ruminations about one’s earliest memories. Who remembered earlier, who started later. Should I look for another beginning?

    I began walking at eight months. This I don’t remember. But my numerous relatives were thrilled by my early mobility. And their delight was the start of my self-awareness.

    My grandmother died in the summer of 1929. I remember her passing very clearly and distinctly. Our family rented a dacha, a summer house, near Moscow. And Grandmother, already looking waxy and haggard, spent long hours on an incongruous, nickel-plated bed in the large meadow in front of the house....

  6. Chapter Two What I Was Like at Five
    (pp. 5-7)

    What was I like at five?

    Carrot-red hair with a light blue bow, my face covered in freckles, green eyes, and white lashes. My legs were strong and my thighs taut. As a baby, I would pull myself up and sit back down, holding onto the cold, crooked bar of the crib, in rhythm to the raspy voice of Nanny Varya (the one who lived in our bathroom):

    I’m small and neat

    And what’s on me, sticks to me.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the days I spent doing those exercises strengthened my legs. Once out of the cradle, I...

  7. Chapter Three Relatives
    (pp. 8-16)

    When I married the composer Rodion Shchedrin on October 2, 1958, Lilya Yuryevna Brik,* who was our neighbor at 12, Kutuzovsky Prospect, said to him, half-jokingly, “I like your choice. But Maya has one major flaw. She has too many relatives all over the place.” And it’s true, God did not stint on relatives for me.

    Who makes up my family?

    The head of the family was my grandfather, Moscow dentist Mikhail Borisovich Messerer. This is the second mention of his name and profession, because I remember his personality, and I know it would have pleased him. He was from...

  8. Chapter Four Spitzbergen
    (pp. 17-22)

    Father worked for Arktikugl (Arctic Coal). In 1932 Otto Yulyevich Shmidt—a kind of Bolshevik enlightener with a beard bigger than Marx’s (Lenin called him a “great bumbler,” which saved him from Stalin’s bloodthirsty paws)—appointed Father general consul to Spitzbergen* and chief of the coal mines there.

    The whole family set off for the end of the world. Father, Mother, my eightmonth-old brother Alexander, and me. It was a very long journey, with stops and awkward changes in various countries. Ordinary people didn’t fly in airplanes yet. The train traveled to Berlin via Warsaw, where mother and I met...

  9. Chapter Five I Study Ballet
    (pp. 23-27)

    Let me return to the summer of 1934.

    After two years of winteron Spitzbergen, Father was given a vacation. A long, wearying journey across all of Europe brought our family back to Moscow. This was when the visit from the nostalgic American uncle occurred that I’ve already described. But one of the family’s main concerns was that they had decided to send me to the Moscow Choreographic School, the ballet school, if I passed the entrance exams. My success inRusalkahad played an important part in my parents’ decision—and I drove them crazy every day, dancing, playacting, making...

  10. Chapter Six Back in School and Father’s Arrest
    (pp. 28-35)

    I’m not going to describe Spitzbergen a second time. Enough. Nothing had changed. There was more snow this time, and we had moved to a larger apartment.

    The polar night was insufferably long this time. The main event was the public memorial service for Sergei Kirov. I still raced around on skis. Upset my parents. My father was becoming more irritable and grumpy. Something was bothering him.

    Sometimes I dreamed about the crowded but welcoming building of the choreography school on Pushechnaya Street. Blue-eyed Muza Fedyaeva, giggly Atochka Ivanova, Tanya Lankovits concentrating on her arabesques, slant-eyed half-breed Nadya Maltseva ....

  11. Chapter Seven My Mother Disappears
    (pp. 36-39)

    The apartment in Gagarinsky (Gagarin Alley) and the wooden house in Zaroyanka were not confiscated right away. They did that later. Mother suffered, begging in the waiting rooms of the NKVD; relatives clucked. But quietly. The neighbors shunned us. Varvara, the janitor, was angrily silent. I continued my daily trips on the subway named for yet another Stalin bandit, Lazar Kaganovich, to my ballet school. Mornings there, evenings back.

    Fortunately for me, the attitude at school did not change toward me. I was not the only one engulfed by grief. Many in my class had lost their parents in the...

  12. Chapter Eight Chimkent
    (pp. 40-44)

    I would like to talk aboutSleeping BeautyandSwan Lake,how I could toss off grands battements, and my handsome partners. But no matter what end of my childhood I look at, it all turns to politics, to the Stalin terror.

    I learned about my mother’s bitter odyssey only later. She was incarcerated in Butyrki Prison with a newborn infant. Butyrki loomed near the center of Moscow. People walked past the grim edifice cautiously. To this day, the prison has not been torn down, and its narrow barred windows squint menacingly at passersby—you’ll need me yet again, don’t...

  13. Chapter Nine Concert for the Cheka
    (pp. 45-47)

    Moscow greeted me with dreary autumnal frosts. The train arrived in the pale dawn, and Mother’s brother Nodya, who could not get a sleepy porter’s attention, had to haul all the packages, boxes, and marvels of Kazakh flora by himself.

    I was living at Mita’s again, and my brother Alexander was with Asaf. On Mondays—the traditional day off at the Bolshoi and the ballet school—I went to see my middle bother. He was growing up with Boris, the son of Asaf and Anel Sudakevich. (Boris Messerer is now a famous theater designer. It was he who created the...

  14. Chapter Ten Tchaikovsky’s Impromptu
    (pp. 48-51)

    Mother was released in April 1941, and she finally returned to Moscow with my little brother. There were two months left before the start of the war. The whole family was waiting for her on the platform of Kazan Station, from which she had left all those years ago. A sea of tears was shed. Hugging until we were dizzy. No end to the joy. They had released her early. The efforts had paid off!

    I was preparing for the next performance. I wanted to show my mother that I had not wasted my time, that I had progressed. Mother,...

  15. Chapter Eleven The War
    (pp. 52-57)

    I remember the first day of the war very well.*

    People huddled in the streets around loudspeakers broadcasting heroic music and giving the latest news. In some areas the trolleys stopped running because large groups of people were walking along the tracks toward the center of the city. Faces reflected anxiety and tension. Some were drunk. Even the most feckless realized that the business of war was killing people. And who lived and who died was the business of fate. Only now are the true figures being published on the victims of the terrible clash of two mighty nations. And...

  16. Chapter Twelve My First Year at the Bolshoi Theater
    (pp. 58-68)

    When I was taken into the ballet company, the Bolshoi Theater had just returned from Kuibyshev (now renamed Samara, its original name), and Marina Semyonova and Olga Lepeshinskaya reigned supreme on the stage. Sulamif Messerer, Sofia Golovkina, and Irina Tikhomirnova were the grand duchesses. They divided the ballet repertoire among them. The sun was setting on the careers of Viktorina Kriger, Lyubov Bank, Anastasia Abramova, and Lyubov Podgoretskaya, who were dancing out their last days. They no longer danced the premieres. The leading male dancers were Alexei Ermolayev, Asaf Messerer, Mikhail Gabovich, Alexander Rudenko, and Yuri Kondratov.

    The repertoire consisted...

  17. Chapter Thirteen The Apartment on Shchepkinsky Passage
    (pp. 69-72)

    And so I graduated from the ballet school in 1943, was accepted into the Bolshoi Theater, danced a few noticeable parts, and received my first award. I was given a room 10 meters square in a communal apartment, in a building owned by the Bolshoi Theater at No.8 Shchepkinsky Passage. The name Shchepkinsky is derived not from the wordshchepka(wood chip) but from the name Shchepkin, a well-known nineteenth-century actor of the Maly Theater.

    There are three theaters on Theater Square in the heart of Moscow—the Bolshoi, the Maly, and the Central Children’s Theater. I know of no...

  18. Chapter Fourteen Mastering the ABCs of the Theater
    (pp. 73-82)

    Lavrovsky began withGiselle.

    The Adolphe Adam ballet ran in Leningrad for a long time; it was just premiering on the Moscow stage. Lavrovsky setGiselleon Galina Sergeyevna Ulanova, who had joined the theater, as I already mentioned, at almost the same time as he did.

    I first saw Ulanova in 1939. Hitler’s minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had arrived in Moscow to sign the ill-fated Nonaggression Pact. We have regaled distinguished guests with the ballet throughout our history. Come to think of it, we still do to this day. Whatever else is lousy, we say, our ballet’s always in...

  19. Chapter Fifteen Raymonda
    (pp. 83-87)

    When I set out to write this book, the first thing I did was to carefully read my skimpy notes from those years. I began jotting things down after Ulanova made a casual remark about taking notes on all the performances in which she danced. And so I, too, noted down nearly everything I did. Except, of course, when I was too lazy. I’d emphasize many things differently today, focus on other things. But the notes were of invaluable help to me. They show much bitterness, many absurdities of the time, and many callous, vile people. My climb up the...

  20. Chapter Sixteen Swan Lake
    (pp. 88-94)

    I’m coming up toSwan Lake.This Tchaikovsky ballet played a central role in my life. I danced it more than eight hundred times. And I danced it for thirty years: from 1947 to 1977. The dates are like the birth and death dates on a tombstone. Thirty years is an entire lifetime.

    The most memorable cities in which I performed inSwan Lakeare Moscow, NewYork, Kharkov, Paris, Leningrad, BuenosAires, Minsk, Helsinki, Kiev, London, Odessa, Milan, Riga, Washington, Ufa, Rome, Sofia, Tokyo, Vancouver, Munich, Tbilisi, Baku, Erevan, Montreal, Cologne, Warsaw, Los Angeles, Sidney, Melbourne, Philadelphia, Budapest, Cairo, Mexico City,...

  21. Chapter Seventeen Youth Festivals
    (pp. 95-99)

    WithSwan Lakemy position in the theater improved significantly.

    Among the new lists of of “talented individuals showing promise” after the war, the overly short ballet list began with me. This collection of names traveled from one newspaper to another and determined the selection of those would take part in the upcoming 1947 Summer Festival of Democratic Youth in Prague.

    The ostentatious showcase celebrating friendship among the youth of “brotherly socialist nations” planned by the Kremlin leaders was supposed to become a grandiose Hollywood show, to impress the world with the luminous joy of those living in the Stalinist...

  22. Chapter Eighteen My Injuries, My Healers
    (pp. 100-106)

    A performance ofChopinianaon April 16, 1948, at the Bolshoi. Semyonova was dancing the leading role; I was dancing the mazurka. I had no foreboding of the ill to come. During the final coda, when the soloists follow one another in sissonnes, Semyonova ran into me with all her might as she was doing a turn. The blow was unexpected, and I fell down. There was piercing, sharp pain. I couldn’t get up. Everyone avoided me and kept on dancing. Unbearable pain in my right ankle. I seemed to have sprained my ankle badly. Everyone was dancing. I lay...

  23. Chapter Nineteen Who’ll Get Whom!
    (pp. 107-112)

    I’ll return to the theater, to my life in 1948.

    In May, toward the end of the season—my fifth—a new director was appointed: Alexander Vasilyevich Solodovnikov. His “reign” was a dark period in my life in the theater. If everything up to that point had been attained through effort and mastery, then the malice initiating from the top turned my life into a day-in, day-out unfair fight. Today I can imagine that someone even higher in rank assigned him the task of “inhibiting” me. But at that time everything for me centered on Solodovnikov.

    Unattractive, stoop-shouldered, with large...

  24. Chapter Twenty Stalin’s Birthday
    (pp. 113-117)

    Historians could name the date without a second thought: December 21, 1949.

    Gung-ho Communists on all the continents of the planet were rabid, despicably zealous to celebrate the bloody tyrant’s birthday ever more grandly. Every hour, deceived laborers were instructed that this day was more significant than that of Christ’s birth. Our socialist brother nations racked their brains looking for ways to surprise the benefactor of mankind on his bright holiday. They even created a museum of gifts presented to the crowned leader. The newspapers printed oceans of telegrams and letters addressed to “Dear Iosif Vissarionovich.” People outdid themselves in...

  25. Chapter Twenty-One I Dance in Don Quixote, I Dance in Golovanov’s Opera
    (pp. 118-122)

    The something new to dance wasDon Quixote.

    After the street dancer, I studied Kitri. This part, like the Swan, has been with me through my entire life. (Like the Persian inKhovanshchinawhen Nikolai Semyonovich Golovanov conducted.)

    After the “Christmas” concert for Stalin’s seventieth birthday, my ill-wishers tucked in their tails slightly. Shashkin began greeting me first and even cracking the slit of his thin mouth into the semblance of a smile: Plisetskaya hadn’t let him down, she had acted bravely (word about the waxed stage of St. George’s Hall in the Kremlin made its way to the ears...

  26. Chapter Twenty-Two Life on the Road and the End of the Stalinist Era
    (pp. 123-130)

    The next two seasons were quite ordinary for me. But I danced a great deal, both in the theater and, especially, at concerts. I traveled all over the country changing horses at every stop. I was earning money. North, west, south, east. There were no jet planes then. The flight from Moscow to Erevan, for instance, took fourteen hours. Today this sounds ridiculous.

    The service was Soviet-style. The acrid odors of gasoline and passengers’ sweat, the deafening roar of engines, the toilet door that doesn’t lock. Filth. Cigarette butts. Sunflower-seed hulls. We brought our own food. The airline crockery shook...

  27. Chapter Twenty-Three My Trip to India
    (pp. 131-138)

    This chapter is tragicomical.

    In the slushy autumn of the same year, 1953, I was summoned to Neglinnaya Street, to see Comrade N. N. Bespalov. At the time, instead of the Arts Committee, we had the Ministry of Culture. The country was striding toward communism in seven-league boots. It was handier to use ministries to get there. We’d muddle our way over it more quickly.

    After Stalin’s death, the militant partisan Boris Ponomarenko was appointed minister. During the war, the partisan unit he led had bravely derailed German trains. The world of art was therefore right up his alley. But...

  28. Chapter Twenty-Four Persecution
    (pp. 139-150)

    That was how I took my first trip abroad.

    What was in store for me?

    Time, which had been frozen to this point, took its first step. Nikita Khrushchev, backed by the guarantee of Marshal Zhukov’s support, swept the head of the KGB punitive organs from the historical stage with a preemptive blow. Beria was arrested and executed. The coup d’état was perpetrated under the cover of a new premiere at the Bolshoi—Shaporin’s operaThe Decembrists.The entire troubled history of the nation “hovers near my theater,” as the song says.

    Foreign guests—heads of foreign governments—began calling...

  29. Chapter Twenty-Five How I Didn’t Go to London
    (pp. 151-158)

    “Foreigners will save us,” Igor Moiseyev liked to say in those years. It was his motto, his mantra. He tried to console me with that aphorism, too.

    They might save some people, but they only made trouble for me.

    At a reception I was approached by a fair-haired, handsome young man. He introduced himself in fluent Russian. “I am John Morgan, second secretary of the British Embassy. I adore the ballet. I’m a big fan of yours.”

    We got to talking. Since I know no foreign languages, I could communicate only with Russian speakers.

    Morgan was an amusing conversationalist. He...

  30. Chapter Twenty-Six While the Company Was in London
    (pp. 159-167)

    The Bolshoi’s “first team” successfully opened the London season. The hapless, the pre-pensioners, and the wounded stayed in Moscow. And I was among them. Suffering. My two “pleading” telegrams to Khrushchev, my letters to him, Bulganin, and Shepilov all went unanswered. None of the leaders would talk to me. I never heard a word.

    But I was not alone. The “reserve bench” held a large armada of gloomy nontravelers. Like fallen warriors on the field of unequal combat. On the very last day, with great fuss and bother, they let out Lavrovsky himself. A fine Romeo they would have had...

  31. Chapter Twenty-Seven How I Dressed
    (pp. 168-172)

    Whenever I notice a nun in a starched wimple or a manly, well-groomed lieutenant in a crowd on the street, I always wonder how they would be perceived if, let’s say, the nun were wearing a Pierre Cardin dress with a plunging neckline or the lieutenant a dirty padded vest with oily stains over baggy quilted pants. How clothes do make the man!

    Our exterior cover creates our image. It alone. We base our perceptions of character on image and use it to form our judgments of the individual. Clothes also dictate behavior. Manners won’t save you (your palms can...

  32. Chapter Twenty-Eight What a Person Needs
    (pp. 173-176)

    My little journal from the year 1957 records only grief and sorrow. They didn’t let me leave the country until April 1959. I continued to write, sometimes angry, sometimes pitiful letters—petitions—but all of them remained unanswered. All of them. All.

    Encounters with leaders became less frequent. I even avoided large gatherings of people where foreigners were present. If you’re not careful, they’ll make up new cock-and-bull stories for your dossier. I had quite enough nonsense in there already.

    Obviously there was no going without conversations with the mighty of the world, but their response was lies. I was...

  33. Chapter Twenty-Nine Shchedrin
    (pp. 177-183)

    On March II, 1956, the premiere ofSpartacustook place on the stage of the Bolshoi Theater. The rehearsal period for the Moscow production dragged on so long that Leonid Yakobson, who had begun his work with the Khachaturian score in Leningrad after Moiseyev started his, nevertheless reached the finish line first. But he made cuts. While Khachaturian stayed Moiseyev’s hand in Moscow, protecting his baby from any attempted cuts, Yakobson trimmed the plump score in Leningrad.

    When Khachaturian saw Yakobson’sSpartacus,they had an enormous, loud argument. Stubborn Yakobson and proud Khachaturian clashed on the field of curses at...

  34. Chapter Thirty Life on Kutuzovsky Prospect
    (pp. 184-190)

    I’ll begin with the prose. With apartment matters.

    The entire summer while I was in Prague, Sortavala, and Matsesta, my mother was totally engaged. She was “breaking through” on the apartment scene. Her nature, as I wrote earlier, was quiet but caustic and obstinate to the extreme. She grew very concerned that I was beginning to suffer from insomnia because of the din of theater sets crashing under my windows in the middle of the night.

    And she got her way! Her wedding gift to me was an authorization for new living quarters. Soon afterward, Shchedrin and I moved to...

  35. Chapter Thirty-One I Go to America
    (pp. 191-197)

    Khrushchev did not see Aragon that trip. Leaders always have little time to spare for artists. They are men of government!

    It turns out that we wrote the “smart letter” in vain. Aragon returned it to Lilya Yuryevna at the Belorussian Station when they were saying good-bye. It was a bust. But how we tried!

    It had been the fruit of a collective effort. Something like the famous painting of the Zaporozhian Cossacks composing a letter to the Turkish sultan, but with flattery instead of cussing: the kindly tsar-batyushka is not aware of his ministers’ intrigues. Three writers had a...

  36. Chapter Thirty-Two Seventy-three Days
    (pp. 198-205)

    April 1959. I’m thirty-three and a half. For the first time in my life, I’m going on a real tour with my theater. The entire tour will last seventy-three days and take us to the major cities of America.

    I was on board the plane with my ballet family. I stretched my neck toward the windows and surveyed the melting fields on the outskirts of Moscow. The pilots warmed up the engines and steered toward the runway. But it still was not too late to order me off the plane, if they should want to. There have been instances of...

  37. Chapter Thirty-Three How We Were Paid
    (pp. 206-217)

    In America in 1959 I received $40 per performance. And on the days when I did not dance, nothing. Zero. The corps de ballet were given $5 a day. Per diem. Or per dummies, as they joked. Later, when I dancedLady with the Dogin the States, the American dog I appeared with on the Yalta pier got $700 a performance. But that’s just an aside.

    Financial arrangements with performers in the Soviet state were always deep, dark secrets. It was forbidden, not recommended, strongly advised against, to talk to anyone about that delicate subject. Especially, as you can...

  38. Chapter Thirty-Four Paris Meetings
    (pp. 218-228)

    I was a seven-month baby, a preemie. When Mother was having me in a small maternity hospital in Bolshoi Chernyshevsky Lane, in the middle of Moscow—right across from the Conservatory—the midwife tried to cheer her up by saying, “Your girlie is a strong one. She’ll travel to Paris yet. Mark my words.” This family legend was the first commentary I ever heard about my appearance in this world.

    The midwife must have had a crystal ball. I did go to Paris. It was in 1961, October. The Paris Opera invited me with a partner (Nikolai Fadeyechev) to dance...

  39. Chapter Thirty-Five Work with Yakobson
    (pp. 229-238)

    The Parisian dream was over . . .


    I was in Moscow. Hordes of foreign visitors. State performances.Swan LakeafterLake.Khrushchev, that martyr to art, must have memorized the ballet! What would the Soviet government have done if Tchaikovsky hadn’t writtenSwan Lake?And with Nikolai Fadeyechev andSwan Lakeyet again, I opened the Kremlin Palace of Congresses on December 23, 1961. The clumsy, bureaucratic building, appended to the ancient Orthodox churches of the Kremlin, was intended for Party congresses, anniversary sessions of the Supreme Soviet, and international congresses. But there couldn’t be government ceremonies everyday....

  40. Chapter Thirty-Six Why I Did Not Stay in the West
    (pp. 239-247)

    I began this book in February 1991 in Spain. I went through my diaries, reread my letters to Shchedrin, and decided to pick up my pen. I would be another George Sand (my husband was a composer, too).

    Time rushed by like a meteor. In a few days, epochs can crumble. The world is completely different today. What will tomorrow be like?

    Nowadays I can’t give a single interview that doesn’t begin with the question, Why didn’t you stay in the West? I’ll try to explain to everyone, including myself, why I didn’t run away after all.

    My generation was...

  41. Chapter Thirty-Seven Marc Chagall Draws Me
    (pp. 248-254)

    “Is that first position?”

    “No, second.”

    “What’s first position?”

    I show Chagall the first position in ballet.

    “I can stand like that, too.” Mark Zakharovich turns out his feet, but he can’t hold his balance in that unnatural position. He stumbles. “Quelque chose!What else does a dancer need?”

    “A high arch.”

    “Is mine high?”

    Chagall takes off his shoe and rolls up his trouser leg to demonstrate his arch.

    “Well, it’s smaller than Anna Pavlova’s, but it’ll do.”

    Vava Chagall, the artist’s wife, whose full name was Valentina Grigoryevna, announces, “It’s too late for you to go into ballet,...

  42. Chapter Thirty-Eight November 20
    (pp. 255-267)

    Madrid television was doing a program about Valentina Koshuba, a Russian ballerina from the legendary days. She had joined Diaghilev’s troupe in 1914. She was incredibly beautiful; they’d call her “Miss Diaghilev Ballet” today.

    I took part in the show. I made the proper complimentary noises. The reporters attacked Koshuba with pointed questions about her alleged affair with the Spanish king Alfonso XIII. Koshuba refused to respond. Yes, he had been slightly in love me, he used to send flowers and made royal gifts. But as for intimacy? . . . There had been nothing like that at all ....

  43. Chapter Thirty-Nine How Carmen Suite Was Born
    (pp. 268-281)

    I was still dancing the old repertoire.Swan Lakeagain,Don Quixoteagain,Sleeping Beautyagain . . . ThenSwan Lake,thenDon Quixote,thenBeauty. . . One moreSwan Lake,one more . . . Would it really be like this to the end of my ballet days? JustSwan Lake?. . . Anxiety tormented me. Frustration. I needed something new, something my own. Definitely new. Definitely my own.

    What to do, with whom? And where?

    I had always wanted to dance Carmen. Well, not since early childhood, of course, but so long that I...

  44. Chapter Forty Work with Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart
    (pp. 282-295)

    After Soviet television showed François Mitterand, the president of France, giving me the order of the Legion of Honor and making a gracious, truly French speech in my honor, a tall, loud, Soviet official I didn’t know came up to me at a Kremlin New Year’s party and said, “I thought, Maya Mikhailovna, that the Legion of Honor was given only to members of the Resistance. And suddenly, they gave it to you . . .”

    “I’ve been resisting all my life,” I replied, laughing sincerely.

    Resist or not, I never dared to dream of working with Western choreographers. I...

  45. Chapter Forty-One A Lyrical Digression
    (pp. 296-299)

    A lyrical digression.

    I am galloping through my life. Through my entire bustling life. It keeps getting clearer that it is impossible to tell completely about what you have lived through. Only excerpts. Blurred contours. Shadows. Did that really happen? Yes, it did. My diary of those years confirms it. But my memory has already mixed it up, put it in different years . . . Premieres, flowers, struggle, hassles, frustrations, impulses, meetings, packing, suitcases, the daily grind . . . What else would you like to learn about me?

    That I am a lefty and do everything with my...

  46. Chapter Forty-Two My Ballets
    (pp. 300-315)

    We have a dance combination called “Ivan Averyanovich.” A Moscow ballet legend explains the name: Once upon a time there lived a certain dancer who worked at the Bolshoi Theater. His name was Ivan Averyanovich (his family name is also preserved—Sidorov). He danced. He rehearsed. At one rehearsal Ivan Averyanovich was executing a big jeté, that is, a jump. Just as he got aloft, strained, and put a smile on his face, and while he was admiring himself in a mirror, someone behind him abruptly called out: “Ivan Averyanovich!”

    Ivan Averyanovich managed adroitly to make a 180-degree turn up...

  47. Chapter Forty-Three My Ballets (Continued)
    (pp. 316-326)

    I am dancing in the French city of Rennes. It’s in Brittany. I’m dancingThe Madwoman of Chaillot.Two evenings in a row.

    What’s today’s date? The 2nd. The month? April. The year—I won’t be mistaken—is 1993. Which means that I have been dancing exactly fifty years today. Dancing with the title of ballerina. Which means that exactly fifty years ago today I was accepted into the Bolshoi Ballet troupe. Actually that isn’t a bad record—dancing before the public for exactly fifty years. Fifty to the day. Then again, I can dance, but is my dancing worth...

  48. Chapter Forty-Four I Want Justice
    (pp. 327-333)

    My name is inscribed on the title pages of four of Rodion Shchedrin’s ballets:

    The Little Humpbacked Horse—to Maya Plisetskaya.

    Anna Karenina—to Maya Plisetskaya, faithfully.

    The Seagull—to Maya Plisetskaya, always.

    Lady with the Dog—to Maya Plisetskaya, eternally.

    False modesty will not stop me from telling everything I perceive, what I feel, about my husband’s music.

    Shchedrin was always in the shadow of the spotlight of my riotous success. But to my joy, he never suffered from it. Otherwise we couldn’t have lived serenely for so many long years together. This is because of both his happy...

  49. Chapter Forty-Five Work in Italy
    (pp. 334-344)

    The elevator operator on duty at our building on Gorky Street (the French have the lovely wordconcierge) has such a round face that every time I see her I think that nature must have used a compass to draw it. One day the friendly and ingratiating Vera Dmitrievna rose in agitation from her desk to greet me. “While you were out, Maya Mikhailovna, the mail carrier brought a telegram. From abroad. From Rome. I accepted it. Here.” Vera Dmitrievna was the most diligent of our concierges and always became visibly agitated, breaking out in red splotches, when something involving...

  50. Chapter Forty-Six Work in Spain
    (pp. 345-357)

    In my youth and even later, Spain did not exist for citizens of the land of the Soviets. There was no such country. Sometimes in the last page of the newspaperPravda,the Kukryniksys, the famous artists, would paint a tiny Spanish Lilliputian with a huge hooked nose and curly hair messily pushing out from behind his cap, wearing a military uniform and holding a big ax that dripped the blood of innocent proletarian workers. The Lilliputian man was usually standing knee deep in blood on the innumerable corpses of his victims. It was, you’ve guessed by now, Franco the...

  51. Chapter Forty-Seven Untitled
    (pp. 358-367)

    What should I call this chapter?

    I discuss it out loud (I always speak to myself loudly—people who don’t know me recoil).

    “Not My Bolshoi Theater”? Or, “How the Bolshoi Ballet Was Destroyed”? Or maybe this long title, “Gentlemen Leaders, Don’t Send Your Grandchildren to Study at the Bolshoi Ballet”?

    The predecessor of the present artistic director, or chief choreographer, which-ever you prefer, at the Bolshoi Ballet was Leonid Mikhailovich Lavrovsky. Twice. Once he was charged with something political and removed. The second time, they said, “You must make way for the young. Young talent!” The present one (a...

  52. Chapter Forty-Eight Years of Wandering
    (pp. 368-377)

    And now—Germany.

    I moved with all my stuff to Munich, to be with Rodion. He has settled here. He has contracts. That means visas, too. In Moscow there is still perestroika, and such things are possible. But anxiety about the future of our homeland keeps me awake at night. Persistent horror fills my every morning. There has to an explosion. And soon. It won’t end well. The Communists won’t leave the stage without blood. That’s not like them. A dictatorship is in the future, logic suggests. Some unknown general with a persuasive face will shout a speech on television....

  53. Chapter Forty-Nine Curfew
    (pp. 378-386)

    Time to sum up. This is the last chapter.

    Yesterday I got to talking with the woman who cleans our apartment on Thereseinstrasse. Frau Steinbeisser. A silly, women’s dreamy conversation. Would you want to be twenty again? And the frau said, “No, I don’t want to be twenty. Just to work all over again? All I’ve seen in this life was work. I never noticed springtime. I never saw the world.”

    And do I need to be twenty?

    For ballet twenty is the best time. But twenty, when your life has been set? When you’re already in the Bolshoi? When...