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Maja Plisetskaja död – en konstens frihetskämpe

2015-05-03

Igår avled en av världens mest framstående ballerinor, Maja Plisetskaja, i München, där hon efter Sovjetunionens fall levde tillsammans med sin make kompositören Rodion Sjtjedrin.
Maja Plisetskaja föddes 20 november 1925 i Moskva, och började tidigt dansa, en självklarhet i den konstnärsmiljö som omgav henne. Bland annat var hennes mor, Rachild Messerer stumfilmsaktris.
Maja Plisetskaja växte delvis under några år i mitten av 30-talet upp i Norge, eftersom hennes far, Michail Plisetskij var diplomat och gruvingenjör på Spetsbergen. Tillbaka i Moskva drabbades föräldrarna 1938 av Stalins terror, fadern avrättades och modern skickades till arbetsläger- Maja räddades från barnhemmet för barn till statens fiender genom att adopteras av sin moster och morbror Sulamith och Asaf Messerer som båda var solister vid Bolsjojbaletten.
Hon examinerades från Bolsjojs balettskola 1943 mitt under pågående världskrig och blev omedelbart antagen i Bolsjojbaletten efter att danstruppen vid fredsslutet återvänt från sin tillflyktsort Kubisjev till Moskva. Redan tidigt kom Fokins Den döende svanen att bli ett emblematiskt verk för henne. Dansrecensenten Tatjana Kuznetsova, som även var personlig vän med Plisetskaja skriver i dagstidningen Kommersant att hennes tolkning var mycket rörande, och att hon även förmådde att formulera känslor av uppror mitt i sorgen. Hon fortsatte att dansa Den döende svanen ända upp i 70-årsåldern, här är ett tidigt exempel ur en sovjetisk film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-AMH_Woywg
Plisetskaja blev snart en av Bolsjojs prima ballerinor, men hennes tolkningar av exempelvis Aurora, Raimonda och Kitri skildje sig från föregångarnas. De bar visserligen samma akademiskt klassiska form, men var revolutionära i anden, skriver Tatjana Kuznetsova, som också menar att rollen som exempelvis Giselle, en flicka som dör av olycklig kärlek, inte passade Maja Plisetskaja, som hellre anförde alla Vilierna i rollen som Myrtha.
Rollen som Odette/Odile i Svansjön kom Maja Plisetskaja att dansa över 800 gånger.
Hon hade en enastående förmåga att inom sovjetsystemet kämpa för att få framföra annat än de klassiska verken. Hennes tolkning av Carmen suite, i koreografi av Alberto Alonso till makens omarbetade version av Bizets musik, utmanade den sovjetiska censuren med sin expressiva glöd, men kunde ändå ges 1967. Andra moderna koreografer som gjorde verk speciellt utformade för henne var Roland Petit och Maurice Béjart, exempelvis här i Bolero https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsSALaDJuN4. Många av dessa verk dansades utomlands, men Plisetskakja valde alltid att återvända till hemlandet, hon kämpade vidare för sina och andra konstnärers uttrycksmöjligheter inom sovjetsystemet.
En annan rysk koreograf vars verk hon gärna ville dansa var Leonid Jacobssons, men han hade i likhet med henne själv stora svårigheter att få arbeta efter eget huvud och få utrymme att uttrycka sig. När inte repertoaren räckte till skapade Maja Plisetskaja egna koreografier till Sjtjedrins musik, efter berömda ryska litterära verk, som baletterna Anna Karenina, Damen med hunden och Måsen. Plisetskaja var framför allt verksam på Kongresspalatset i Moskva, medan Bolsjojs stora scen, snarare dominerades av Jurij Grigorovitjs baletter och konstsyn, som hon visserligen också dansade i, exempelvis Kärlekens legend.
För den som inte irriteras av kortare avsnitt på ryska, finns i detta halvannan timme långa ryska tv-program som visades i samband med hennes 85-årsdag många spännande avsnitt ur hennes omfattande karriär https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nehx3YOnx4MMaja
Maja Plisetskaja besökte Stockholm tillsammans med sin make 1995 i samband med att hans opera Lolita gavs på Operan, och Maja själv gav en intervju till Danstidningen om sin självbiografi som just hade utkommit på ryska. (Danstidningen 1/1995).
Maja Plisetskaja blev 89 år.

Mer att läsa om Maja Plisetskaja finns på http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_Plisetskaya
samt på ryska i Tatjana Kuznetsovas artikel i Kommersant, som mot slutet innehåller många spännande illustrationer: http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2720890

Danstidningens medarbetare Tim Scholl har även skickat följande text som även är ett förord till en av de engelskspråkiga utgåvorna av hennes memorer, I, Maya Plisetskaya. På engelska språket transkriberas den ryska stavnings av hennes namn Майя Плисецкая annorlunda än på svenska.

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 a dancer after decades on the stage. We rarely hear them 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 Plisetskaya’s own, belated departure from the Bolshoi stage in 1990, Plisetskaya was one of the few international celebrities the Soviet Union produced. She appeared in art films, documentaries, and frequently on television; she barnstormed Russia’s theaters first, and then the world’s. Yet her path to stardom was littered with obstacles, and the difficulties she faced – especially in the early phase of her career – became known to her Russian fans through the intricate, unofficial network of gossip that thrived everywhere information was controlled. In a society where the personal was hardly public, legends grew up around Plisetskaya in the absence of fact. Today, nearly six decades after her career began, she remains a public persona.

Much of Plisetskaya’s uniqueness and appeal to the Russian reader lay in her ability to straddle several spheres of Soviet life without belonging entirely to any one category. A Bolshoi star rumored to be a rebel, Plisetskaya was also the wife of a famous husband, yet remained truest to her own career. She was the prima ballerina who could not tour with her company, and the anti-Soviet who would not emigrate.

The contradictions that characterize Plisetskaya’s autobiography began at home. The enormous family of Plisetskaya’s mother occupied a myriad of positions in the theater world. They were dancers, actors, and designers; Plisetskaya’s mother was a silent film star. Plisetskaya’s aunt and uncle, Asaf and Sulamif Messerer, were lead dancers in the Bolshoi Ballet and People’s Artists. Yet it took only one ‘infamous’ relative to demonstrate the hazards of family connections in Stalin’s Russia and negate any assistance Plisetskaya’s famous relatives might have given her. A rising apparatchik in the Soviet coal industry, Plisetskaya’s father was summoned to Moscow in 1935 and summarily purged. The dancer’s mother was subsequently sent to a camp for ‘enemies of the people’ (in this case, the wives of arrested husbands). In a paradox typical of the freakish absurdity of the Stalin era, Asaf and Sulamif were decorated on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Great October Revolution as their sister waited in the gulag.

The ‘thaw’ and destalinization of the Khrushchev years did little to erase these permanent blots in Plisetskaya’s file: stains she was forced to recall on every application to travel abroad throughout her long career. And each of those forms required her to declare her Jewish nationality, another reproach to the Party.

Plisetskaya’s decidedly mixed political pedigree, her lack of interest in Party matters, and her ‘political immaturity’ (as the entire issue was conveniently cast) meant that the West would make its acquaintance with the Bolshoi’s brightest star only belatedly. Born in 1925, Plisetskaya joined the Bolshoi in 1943 and rose to prominence almost immediately, but was not allowed to tour with her troupe until 1959. Until that time, Plisetskaya was told she was needed at home: there were innumerable Swan Lakes to dance for Stalin, Mao, Ribbentrop, Tito, and other luminaries of the totalitarian world.

The Bolshoi Ballet that Plisetskaya finally joined on tour took the West by storm. The company had developed an energetic, impetuous style quite unlike the careful academicism of Leningrad’s Kirov Ballet or the restrained dance classicism the West then knew. The Bolshoi had served as Russia’s second dance theater from the time of the Tsars, but Soviet centralization demanded that the dance capital accompany the seat of government to Moscow, and the Bolshoi began to ‘gather its muses,’ from Leningrad, in the mock-heroic era of Stalinism: Marina Semyonova moved to Moscow in 1930, Ulanova and Leonid Lavrovsky arrived in 1944.

Plisetskaya’s brush with Leningrad classicism — mostly in the person of legendary pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova — was a fleeting one. But Plisetskaya compensated for the lack of first-rate training and coaching by developing an individual, iconoclastic style that capitalized on her electrifying stage presence, a daring rarely seen on ballet stages today, and a jump of almost masculine power. Her very personal style was angular, dramatic, and capitalized on the considerable theatrical gifts that all in her mother’s family seemed to possess. Plisetskaya’s body scarcely resembled that of the inter-war ideal, yet the fluidity and force with which she presented it made an asset of its singularity. Many who saw Plisetskya’s first performances in the West still speak of her ability to wrap the theater in her gaze, to convey powerful emotions in terse gestures. She redefined the role of Odette/Odile for good, and made Fokine’s ‘dying’ Swan her own.

At nearly the same time she began to travel with her company, Plisetskaya began to explore a new, more contemporary repertory in ballets such as Spartacus, The Legend of Love, and The Stone Flower. The long, angular lines of those suffering heroines suited her body and temperament perfectly and marked a sharp departure from the more compact bodies and purer academic technique that still characterized Leningrad’s dancers. More importantly, the passionate, powerful heroines Plisetskaya created in these roles reflected the new, overtly dramatic style of ballet the Bolshoi was then developing, and the larger-than-life quality Plisetskaya brought to the Bolshoi became the company’s trademark. Much as Plisetskaya herself had done, the new Bolshoi melded bravura dancing to melodrama, privileging pyrotechnics and histrionics over academic technique.

With her status at the Bolshoi now firmly established, Plisetskaya longed to work the leading European choreographers of the day. Yet her collaborations with Roland Petit and Maurice Bejart became possible only in the 1970s, in Plisetskaya’s fourth decade on the stage. By that time, her frequent work abroad raised yet another contradiction. Though she toured frequently in the years of the famous ballet defections (Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov, and Plisetskaya’s partner, Aleksandr Godunov) Plisetskaya always returned to Russia.

Plisetskaya’s memoirs help to explain some of these paradoxes her life embraced, while they shed light on an ever greater enigma: the Soviet Union’s curious relationship to its artists. Plisetskaya’s position – at least by the 1960s – was a privileged one in the peculiar hierarchy of a classless society. Yet the humiliations she and other artists endured at the hands of government handlers and arts bureaucrats interrogate popular notions of the privileged lives of Soviet artists. Always begging – to travel, to prepare new works, to be paid fairly – Plisetskaya’s career, and those of her colleagues, more closely resembled those of Russian serf artists of the eighteenth century than of cultural workers in a modern socialist state.

Had Plisetskaya only dancing to think about, her memoirs might focus narrowly on the preparation of roles or her philosophy of Fokine’s Swan. They might read like a recitation of premieres and parties. But Plisetskaya was rarely left in peace to prepare her roles. More often, she was forced to negotiate the indignities of the communal apartment, or the inhumanity of KGB handlers anxious to insure the isolation of Soviet artists abroad. Plisetskaya’s account of her dancing life includes scenes quite unimaginable to her Western colleagues: pleading with the Ministry of Culture to let the show go on, or dancing for the Cheka, who imprisoned her parents.

Plisetskaya also documents the rapid changes occurring in Soviet society in the post-Stalin years. Where attendance at an embassy party would have ensured a trip to the KGB in Stalin’s day, Khrushchev initiated a fledgling social scene, and dancers were expected to grace embassy soirées. The bureaucrats made other demands in exchange for an artist’s limited autonomy. One of the Party’s more outlandish notion of service to the fatherland involved Plisetskaya’s curious friendship with Robert Kennedy, which the KGB hoped to foster as a means of furthering political goals.

It comes as no surprise that Plisetskaya is still fighting as she ends her memoirs. If Soviet power and KGB ceased to be worthy opponents, much of the system they put in place remained. The names (and sometimes, the allegiances) of many of the bureaucrats have changed, but not their investment in the status quo, still anathema to Plisetskaya, who danced a gala to mark her half-century in the theater as Moscow’s White House burned.

As the Soviet Union and its symbols recede farther into the past, other memoirs and accounts of life on and off the stage of Bolshoi will undoubtedly appear. Less courageous dancers may feel freer, then, to write truthful accounts of their time in the theater. Given her persistence, courage, and candor, it is probably no surprise that Plisetskaya was the first to have her say.

Tim Scholl
Professor of Russian & Comparative Literature
Oberlin College
http://www.oberlin.edu/faculty/tscholl/

Docent, Department of Theatre Research
Helsinki University
http://www.helsinki.fi/taitu/english/theatre.htm

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