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I, Maya Plisetskaya

  • Author: Maya Plisetskaya
  • Publisher:  Yale University Press
  • Published: October, 2001
  • Pages: 386
  • Language: English
  • Format:  PDF
  • Price: $39.00

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.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This is much more than an artistic memoir it is a courageous account of an era. Plisetskaya was born in Moscow in 1925, joined the Bolshoi Ballet in 1943, and became one of its most acclaimed prima ballerinas (and one of the best-known in the West), performing into the 1990s. But as she makes clear, her life has been one of daily struggle. Plisetskaya’s father, a rising apparatchik in the coal industry, was executed in 1935. Her mother, an actress, was then sentenced to eight years in prison. Taken in by a ballerina aunt, Pisetskaya was allowed to continue her dance training; but a pattern of persecution by authorities had been established. Even after she was well established at the Bolshoi, and despite years of pleading, Plisetskaya was forbidden to tour outside the country until 1959, and then she went under tight guard, always returning home, even during the years of the notable defections of Nureyev, Makarova and Baryshnikov. In Moscow, she was trotted out to perform for visiting dignitaries (Mao, Ribbentrop and Tito among them) and was routinely humiliated and artistically encumbered by a punitive bureaucracy. Plisetskaya says she’s unable to put into words exactly why she never defected her marriage to a Russian composer was part of it. Every page attests to bitter, poignant regrets. Her account is sometimes rambling, sometimes garbled in translation; but Plisetskaya makes horrifyingly clear the life of an honored artist in her homeland: the artistic paucity (in contrast with the “Balanchine years” in the U.S.) is one element; the degradation of daily life for Soviet citizens is another; and Plisetskaya, as is her reputation, pulls no punches here. (Oct.)Forecast: Plisetskaya is a major ballet star, and her memoirs will sell well among dance lovers. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From The New Yorker

In 1937, when the Bolshoi’s acclaimed spitfire ballerina was eleven, the K.G.B. came at dawn to arrest her father (“My mother, unkempt, pregnant with a big belly, weeping and clutching… My father, white as snow, dressing with trembling hands”). They shot him, and sent his wife to a prison camp. Such events were common under Stalin. What is new in this memoir is the description of the death-by-inches humiliation of life in the Soviet theatres: the dancers informing on each other in order to get a little something (a role, a place on the tour list); the dog food these supposedly glamorous Russian artists ate in their American hotel rooms in order to eke out their per diems; and, at every turn, some apparatchik, violent and fearful, blocking one’s way. The book is bitter and shrieky, but no more than is just.

Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker


. . .[S]ocial history. . . by a dancer who transcends the mute language of her art to tell a universal story. . .deliciously subversive. . . — Deirdre Kelly, Toronto Globe & Mail

[F]ascinating. . . I, Maya Plisetskaya has the virtues of candor and directness, and it has a real story to tell. — Robert Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times Book Review

Most helpful reviews

A great story by a great ballerina

By Joan Benny

Written with honesty, in a personal and intimate way, this is the fascinating yet horrifying story of life for the foremost ballerina in Russia under Stalinist, and after his death, equally cruel communist rule. While she was being used to show off the brilliance of Russian ballet, dancing for visiting foreign dignitaries, she was followed, spied on, given little money, and for fear of defection, not allowed to leave the country with the rest of the Bolshoi company.

Although by then she was in her forties, I was lucky enough to have seen her dance here in the USA and in Paris. Her ‘Odette/Odile’ and her ‘Dying Swan’ were, I think, the best in the history of dance. Her book is a page-turner. I couldn’t put it down.

I also highly recommend the videotape, “Plisetskaya Dances“. Wait til you see her leaps where her foot touches the back of her head!


By Daniel G. Madigan

Read this and know what a great artist is all about. She is the ballerina par excllence, and Makarova would agree.

Her dying swan was so overwhelingly great in person, which I saw three times, that audiences yelled for thirty minutes for her to just bow to them again and again. She repeated the dying swan or part of it at one performance I attended and there was pandemoinium. Her arms are perfect wings, waving naturally in the winds that she made you belive in. She metamorphosed herself into a swan before our eyes. Indeed, her other ballet scenes were of the smae magnitude. Her examples from Giselle, Manon Lescaut etc. made huge fans out of haters of ballet.

When we went back stage to get autographs there were over a thousand people waiiting to see her, touch, applaud her once more.

To read her book is to know the horrors of the Soviet system of old, with its repression of people like her. We had only small samples of her art, and now her great Autobiography…Plisetskaya will live forever in the records of ballet, even Nureyev and Barishnikov in thier spheres can only touch her greatness..Makarova is the closet , very much so, but Madame Plisetskaya is the ballet Diva of the universe, and this book will help you see why.

There are films of her dancing that mezmerize, even through the weirdness of TV imagery and snow.

Buy this book and begin to know about the art of ballet by its supreme practioner.

A common man’s point of view.

By Richard Rawls

You will be able to relate to the dancer more closely, I believe, when you know more about his/her life from the beginning. In this case, Maya tells us in her own words what her life was like from her beginning in 1925, and she ends it more or less abruptly, during her Jubilee Celebration. Remember when the Russian White House was attact and set on fire by cannon fire from Russian tanks? There was a coup attempt taking place in the government offices. Every news channel in the US of A showed it on TV, in 1993. While that was happening, right across the street almost, Maya was preparing for her celebration of 50 years on the stage of the Bolshoi Theater. At the age of 68, Maya plisetskaya would be on stage, dancing at her own Jubilee Celebration. You can see what she would have looked like if you get a copy of “Esential Ballet” in which she dances “The Dying Swan” at the age of 68. So, that means her debut was October 1943, while WWII was still raging. A lot of history takes place between those dates, and her recording of it is very interesting. She maintained a journal of her activities from early on, so in effect she has her own written account of nearly everything that happened to her. She does not have to rely on memory alone. Naturally, she reminisces outside of her notes many times, and sometimes the chronology is hard to understand. It is not the easiest book to follow because her memory wonders, so I found myself having to reread many passages to follow her story.

This is not just a history of Maya Plisetskaya, but a history of the Soviet Union and the horrible things that happened to her family and herself from 1925 to 1993. Thank God she outlived the Soviets. I think she is still alive, and the last I heard she was living (and teaching) in Spain. It is obvious she loved Spain.

Get this book, read it, learn from it what it takes to become a Prima Ballerina Assoluta in spite of a repressive Soviet government that killed her father and imprisoned her mother, but also the good, kindhearted, salt of the earth people who lived in the Russia she never betrayed. Why? Because more than anything, she loved Rodion Shchedrin and the stage of the Bolshoi Theater…..Richard.

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