DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Maya: Portrait of Maya Plisetskaya (1999)

A brilliant artist of "vitality, sensuality, and modernity"

Published on April 22, 2009

Maya: Portrait of Maya Plisetskaya  (1999)

Maya: Portrait of Maya Plisetskaya  (1999)

Director: Dominique Delouche

With:  Maurice Bejart, Vladimir Vasiliev, Marie-Agnes Gillot, Celine Talon, Yann Saiz

Studio: VAI 4489

Video: 4:3 Color/Black&White

Audio: PCM Mono

Length: 85 minutes

Rating: ***** 

Choreographer Maurice Bejart introduces our subject, prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisatskaya (b. 1925), who after Ulanova became the premier dancer of the Bolshoi Ballet and reigned supreme for her “vitality, sensuality, and modernity.”  Told from multiple perspectives, enhanced by historical footage and family photographs, Maya tells of the sheer will of one of the world’s most dedicated artists, a Jewish girl whose father was murdered (1938) under Stalin’s evil regime, whose actress mother was subsequently imprisoned as “a wife of an enemy of the state” but who was already unknowingly a widow. Ironically, her mother had played in a silent film called The Leper. So dance became both discipline and atonement, and Maya became victim and conqueror. “She understands the great Classical tradition,” offers Bejart. “She has loved it, breathed, vomited it, and redigested it many times.” Maya herself shows us Gagarin Street, her first home, where a local band played music, and Maya danced, since “their music inspired me.”

We will see footage of the great roles Maya incarnated, the Odile and Odette from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (800 performances); Juliet from Prokofiev’s ballet; Don Quixote; Roland Petit’s The Sick Rose (after William Blake); Ravel’s Bolero; Shchedrin’s The Little Humpbacked Horse (1961); Bejart’s Isadora; her Incense for Martha Graham; and her Leda with Jorge Donn for Bejart’s Leda and the Swan. Even at 71 years of age, her hair still striking and her features chiseled with experience and sitting in her office, Maya commands our awe, a totally charismatic presence.  She worships the memory of her husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin, especially years 1958-1963, what she calls “happy years, spent with a man whose soul was purity, who fought for justice.” Bejart stands at the piano, hugging Maya with fierce affection; likewise, dancer Vladimir Vasiliev–who played Romeo to her Juliet–takes in the stage of the Bolsoi with mixed feelings: “We knew this theater, this stage. God, how we loathed it and loved it; at least, as dancers we could kick it!”  He calls Maya “My Demon,” and we see the fluency of their love scene from Prokofiev. The moments of Maya’s Juliet–the Young Girl (with the Nurse)–reveal the brisk, impish, gregarious Shakespeare heroine, lithe, elegant, full of life. “That’s what Maya gives me,” offers Bejart. “Yes, she has played the Dying Swan innumerable times, but it is vitality that she brings, not a note of death.”

Maya, too, harbors ambivalence for the Bolshoi. “I entered in 1943 and I stayed and played for 50 years. That box to the right–occupied by Stalin and his Politburo–we dared not look at it directly, for who knew whom they might condemn next. Khruschev came often to the Bolshoi, and he grew to loathe Swan Lake, but he had to come to show off his best to foreign diplomats. I grew from the Bolshoi training, but mostly I relied on my talents. Asaf Messager was my main teacher, and he ingrained the Gorsky School of method.” We see the application and extension of that pedagogy when Plesitskaya coaches Swan Lake at the Paris Ballet: she counts out the chain steps, the pirouettes, the hand gestures; and most importantly, her knowledge of the music directs the line, the notes of music connected to the psychological realism of the character. To watch footage of her Odile–the arms and hands turning to liquid before our eyes–proves a miracle of balletic art. “That Tchaikovsky created two women, Odette the untouchable and Odile the temptress, in direct collision with each other; what an opportunity for a dancer. Odile the she-demon will reveal her true feelings: stupid Prince, I am supreme!”  As for the hand motions, Maya attributes it to the music. “They told me, leave the gestures as you made them; we cannot teach it. And it’s true: the liquid comes from the musical score when you listen closely.”

If the Swan Lake excerpts do not floor you, try the moments from Don Quixote, when Maya’s small battements follow every staccato in the orchestra at an astonishing speed; then the turns, the jetes, the extension of her right leg up and behind her, the speed and accuracy of the pirouettes: it’s what pianist Gilels does when he plays Alborada del gracioso. The theme of modern dance comes with Isadora, a tribute to Isadora Duncan, whose residence in Russia we see, a palace in restoration; and old photos show Isadora with her poet-lover Essenine, whose verses Maya recites by heart. The Dance of the Knucklebones, set to the little F Minor Moment musical by Schubert, has Maya in perfect symmetry to the music. Maya recalls having yelled, “Art is for the people!” in performance, Duncan’s own words, and having been hooted down. “When she danced, they threw tomatoes,” Maya winces. The Ravel Bolero is another matter. “I became afraid,” confesses Maya. “The music is set as repetitive 16 bars, always in slight variation.” Bejart came up with a plan, a spotlight for him in the back of the theater, and Maya would watch his movements. “He signaled the character of each variation; and people said of me, she’s so concentrated; but I was receiving the Brazil, or the Samba, or the cat. . .and I became those characters.”  In the last of many balletic excerpts, we see Maya with admirer Jorge Donn in Leda and the Swan, where the god Jupiter takes the wings from the swan and dons them himself, to couple with Leda in androgynous embrace to produce, later, Helen of Troy. 

Victim and redeemer, loss and triumph: perhaps this is the sub-theme of Delouche’s film, besides its literal narrative of the life of a noble artist, a great lady, a priestess who received, among many decorations, the French Legion of Honor. “Why did you receive that award?” queried a Russian bureaucrat. “I thought it was only bestowed on those in the Resistance.” To which Maya glibly replied, “I have been resisting all my life.” With the elderly Plisetskaya still dancing Swan Lake for rapt pupils, we have come full circle in this “river of art.”

                                  Art is a great river. . .it must never forget its source.

                                                                                –Maya Plisetskaya

–Gary Lemco



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