In the chapter “Relatives” in Maya’s autobiography “I, Maya Plisetskaya” there are perhaps the warmest words ever said about my father, Emmanuel. He, according to Maya, was, “the most gentle, the most beautiful among the Messerer siblings. Nature marked him with a charming flirtatious mole on his cheek, as though he were a French court marquis. For his quiet nature, everyone loved him.”
A HAIRSBREADTH AWAY FROM DEATH
I, unfortunately do not remember my father — he died at the start of the war, on duty on a Moscow’s roof during a bombing. Therefore, I assume that he was shy — or rather, modest — but at dangerous moments showed courage and determination. Maya owes him her life: he saved her from certain death when she was only two years old. In describing this episode, as well as some other events related to Maya’s family chronicle, I will refer to the diaries of our mutual aunt Elizabeth Messerer which she bequeathed to me shortly before her tragic early death. At birth, she was given the Hebrew name Elisheva, and the family called her Ella.
In her diaries, she wrote: “One day I walked into the ‘last’ room, which was what we called our room at the end of the corridor (in the house on the corner of Lubyanka and Sretensky Boulevards — A.M.) and saw an open window. Outside it, on the brick ledge, Maya was blithely looking down from the fourth floor and murmuring “Mom…mommy…” I almost fainted; my legs gave way from horror. Then, very quietly so as not to scare her, my brother Emmanuel ran up and grabbed her; she, already in his strong hands, was trembling all over. And on the street the situation was this: Azary, my older brother, came up to the house with his wife and saw a crowd of people who heads up, were looking at our windows. Someone told him that a little girl fell from the fourth floor. Terrified, Azary and his wife rushed up the stairs and only calmed down when they saw Maya, alive, in Emmanuel’s hands.
Apparently, desperate courage and curiosity is in Maya’s very genes — this was the first but not the last time when she found herself on the verge of death. The second time was on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, where, in the early 30s, Maya’s father, Mikhail Plisetsky, was the Consul General of the USSR and head of the Soviet coal concession of the trust “Arcticugol”. Life in the Arctic Circle was dangerous: the day only lasted a few hours, even in the spring, and the polar night carried raging storms where you couldn’t see anything and the people moved about in the pitch blackness by gripping wires stretched from house to house. If you let go, it was easy to get lost and freeze. There were rare conveys traveling from village to village, and one day Maya’s mother, Rakhil Mikhailovna, working on radios, saw through her binoculars a small object, really a black dot against the road, which was rapidly being buried in snow, following a convoy already several kilometers away. Maternal instinct told Rakhil that it was her eight-year-old, naughty, rebellious daughter Maya. She raised the alarm and skiers practically flew out to the convoy with a trained dog named Yak, which dug out the half-frozen girl from a snowdrift.
Rakhil Mikhailovna kept relics in the form of shoes, worn out at the toes, that Maya wore at the age of two when she performed in a large multi-room apartment where our grandfather, Mikhail Borisovich Messerer lived at the time with his not-so-small family. Maya’s favorite waltz from the ballet Coppelia would be set up on the gramophone and she’d spin, trying her best to get onto her toes in those very shoes. One day Rakhil was in a store on Sretensky Boulevard when she lost three-year-old Maya. At last, and with some difficulty, she found Maya, who was dancing on the boulevard, surrounded by a crowd of spectators… This was possibly Maya’s first performance before an audience.
In addition, she had someone from whom to adopt acting skills — from Ella, who had a phenomenal penchant for acting, and hence an acute gift of observation. Maya repeatedly recognized later that her love of drama came to her before her love of ballet thanks to Ella, who from an early age took Maya with her to the performances at the Yermolova theater. And without a doubt, Ella showed Maya her own humorous skits. I remember them perfectly — they were so funny that my cheeks hurt with laughter when I listened to Ella perform them on the stage or for my birthday. Ella was also able to mimic the amazing famous actresses… Maya probably got her ability to mimic and parody others in her youth from Ella.
In 1929, Sulamith Messerer was able to collect a small troupe of artists from the Bolshoi Theater to put on children’s matinees at the Moscow Music Hall. Maya and aunt Ella, who did not fail to describe the event in her diary, went to a production, “Little Red Riding Hood”:
“After seeing Sulamith dance, Maya loudly exclaimed, “what a beauty!” After arriving home, she begged to be allowed to take her room and split it in two with a curtain. Then she made her entire family sit on one side of the tightly closed curtain. She asked uncle Emmanuel to raise it, and the performance began. She portrayed Little Red Riding Hood, gracefully improvising dances, picking imaginary flowers while butterflies fluttered in her way. But then, suddenly… she saw a wolf. Maya shrank with fear. Her face depicted the terror as she ran on tiptoe to the corner to hide from the wolf; she reached out her hands as if seeking protection, and, after pausing for a moment in that beautiful position, suddenly came out of her dance and commandingly said, “the first act is over. Close the curtain!” She began to prepare for the second act, but only after bowing to the audience.
According to Sulamith, it was this moment that decided the fate of her niece. She was particularly struck by the fact that, “the dancing girl’s expressions matched the pose. When she dropped to one knee, she would look down, or else up at the ceiling. It was all very natural…it’s something that is taught at the ballet schools, something that is sometimes impossible to teach. And the child did it all by herself, intuitively.” Ballet schools accepted eight-year-olds at the time, but Sulamith enrolled her a few month early. At first, the admissions committee was unsure, but that only lasted until Maya curtsied. That curtsy so impressed the headmaster, Viktor Semyonov, that he said firmly: “we’ll take this one.” Since then, Maya, who began to appreciate the importance of the curtsy, worked on that old element of ballet and reached such perfection that her bows after performances practically became an encore in and of themselves.
Maya Plisetskaya in the Dying Swan
THE ACTING SIDE OF HER TALENT
I will forever remember her improvisation that she performed for her future husband, Rodion Shchedrin, and me. It was at the Karelian resort Sortavala, where, near a picturesque bay called Ladoga Lake surrounded by pine forest, the Creativity House for Composers was located. In the summer of 1958, I was lucky enough to get a ticket to go there because of my mother, musicologist Raisa Glaser. Maya and Rodion were going to get married and had a part of their honeymoon a little early. The weather was delightful, and we’d have long walks in the woods either as a triad or just Maya and me when Shchedrin was busy working on a new piece.
When we’d return, we’d listen to what he had written in that time, and, at his request, even help him choose better versions of complex chords. And then we’d walk in the woods again. In an unnamed forest glade there was an unforgettable view. There, Maya showed me how the most famous dancers and ballerinas bowed. She imitated Semenova, Lepeshinskaya, Ulanova, as well as Asaf Messerer, Ermolaev, Chabukiani, Fadyeychev, and other partners that she’d had. Each one was accompanied by a short commentary in which, I am sure, she also imitated their manner of speaking. I remember Ulanova’s commentary was one sentence: “I’m sorry, it’s not my fault that I am so great.”
That was when I was struck by the purely acting side of her talent, her ability to delve into the psychology of those she was imitating, into their motives, into, as the Americans say, what made them tick. It turns out that the essence of people is actually manifested clearly in their bows. It was after this that I began to examine performers’ bows across performance genres. It is a pity that the directors got all of Maya’s talent by permanently employing her in ballet, where her dramatic talent was rarely used. She only played in a few movies, though, in my opinion, she could have become a major film star.
The obvious strength of her skill was in the realm of comedy because since childhood she had had a sharp sense of humor and an overwhelming desire to make fun of people. Her teachers, because of her sarcasm, called her a little red devil and often punished her and kicked her out of class. The punishments brought her, the devious minx, joy: “then I could do what I wanted, while others suffered in the classroom,” Maya said in an interview with the New York Times on June 8, 1987. Her claim is fully corroborated by Elly’s journal: “Maya was not always to blame for school pranks, but she loved to take the blame anyway. One day the teacher threatened to take her to the director, but then forgot and went to the teacher’s lounge to prepare for the next lesson. After a while, the door opened slightly and Maya’s red head poked into the room. She very seriously reminded the teacher, “you wanted to take me to the director’s office!”
“LEADER OF THE COMANCHES”
At the Institute of Foreign Languages, where almost daily they’d tediously drill us in English grammar, I followed young Maya’s example and shamelessly skipped whenever I could. Once, Zoe Tsvetkova, a professor of a rather boring subject (Methods of Teaching), threw me out of lecture for talking (which is why many years later, I felt a keen sense of guilt when I learned that in her youth she was friends with Marina and Anastasia Tsvetaeva, and I saw her paintings of the Tsvetaeva family and landscapes in the Tsvetaeva Museum in Tarusa). But on that memorable morning, I ran out into the street from the institute, full of joy because I had so much time to practice music. A tram came up and I rushed to it. As to what happened after that, I don’t remember—I got hit by a truck and lost consciousness for a few hours. Since I had a briefcase in my hands, I fell face down and turned into a bloody mess. The next day, Maya came to see me in unappealing grey hospital’s building on the other side of Moscow. Instead of words of sympathy, she surveyed my face, laughed, and then said, “yes, you’re the leader of the Comanches!”
Suddenly it became funny to me, too, only laughing hurt my bruises and abrasions. And what a magnificent gift that Maya had brought me! A photo album, titled “The Family of Man,” full of photos selected by the famous American photographer Edward Steichen out of three million images taken in sixty-eight countries. Reading was forbidden after a concussion, but I could examine the large photos endlessly. They were grouped by theme: childhood, adolescence, love, old age, etc. Some images have been imprinted in my brain: photos of a husband and wife before and after many years of marriage. They closely resembled each other after all those years spent together. Later I noticed that even the dogs looked more like their owners over the years, at least in the expression around the snout.
Soon after I left the hospital, it was Maya’s birthday, and I had been racking my brains for a long time trying to figure out what to get her. Like every student, I had no money to burn. Finding something original and inexpensive in Moscow wasn’t easy in those days. I ended up giving her Mickey Mouse — a gift presented to me from my girlfriend. I could never have imagined that in New York such toys were piled in heaps in every cheap souvenir store. Maya, who had been to America, must have seen them and known their value so she could not appreciate how dear this gift was to me. My girlfriend learned of my betrayal and suffered so bitterly that after ten years, having become a known poet, she wrote about this offense in her memoirs.
FROM OLD MEETINGS WITH MAYA
In the middle of the 70s, Maya and I met more frequently than before — I’d come to her apartment on the corner of Blagoveshenskii and Tverskaya, where the walls were covered in paintings and engravings given to her by the artists, including Fernand Leger’s wife and Chagall himself. Maya told me how Chagall used her as a model when he created his famous stained glass for the facade of the Metropolitan Opera House (the red painting on the left). Every time I pass the Lincoln Center and look at the window I can find no apparent similarities, but to Chagall it was important to grasp the pose, not the features, which is what Maya showed to the great artist.
Maya in the center of Chagall’s painting in Lincoln Center
We’d sit beneath Chagall’s etchings in the living room and discuss art, music, and poetry—especially Andrei Voznesensky, her favorite poet, who dedicated a poem to her called “Tsvetaeva in Ballet”, and Joseph Brodsky, whom she did not yet know… Speaking about her father, Maya once remarked that she mostly remembers his long fingers and hands, one of which had a deep scar from a sabre stab during the Civil War. At night, she confessed, she often had the same nightmare: her father being tortured and his fingers being broken… Michael Plisetsky had been subjected to terrible torture for months in Lefortovo Prison. And before signing the confession that they had beaten out of him, he asked the interrogator to call his wife and ask about the child she had just given birth to. Frightened, Rakhil only managed to utter “boy” before the investigator hung up. I think that to some degree those nightmares explain why Maya was so good at those tragic ballet scenes.
THE GREAT PROMPTER
In those years, I worked for the magazine “Za Rubezhom” and tried, wherever possible, to put in international reviews of Maya and her troupe’s performances. Every time, I had to overcome the resistance of the chief editor, Daniel Kraminov, who, according to my department head, complained, “Plisetskaya again! She’s already old. Get me reviews of a young ballerina.” But at the time there were few reviews of young Soviet dancers, and so Kraminov, still complaining, let the reviews I had picked into the paper.
Besides the foreign reviews in our magazine, reviews of Maya’s successful international tour barely appeared in the Soviet press. They censored it out by the suggestion, I believe, of the all-powerful Yuri Grigorovich, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, with whom Maya dared to quarrel. Yet his thundering glory that he possessed at the time was largely thanks to Plisetskaya, who created unforgettable characters in his early ballets, such as the Mistress of Copper Mountain in The Stone Flower. But Maya, like all great artists, soon tired of using the same classical style and was drawn towards trying her hand at elements of contemporary dance—elements that Béjart, Petit, and other famous choreographers of the time were willing to let Maya do. Grigorovich, most likely, was afraid of the competition and wouldn’t permit the new style on the Bolshoi stage.
Two years later, I decided to work at the magazine “Rovesnik,” where, under a pseudonym, I published two large articles for Maurice Béjart’s arrival in Moscow, in particular, an interview with him and Maya. We received a lot of feedback from readers on her fascinating story about how in just one week she had to learn a complicated dance for Béjart’s Bolero:
“This dance is fifteen minutes without a single break, and the entire time I dance the melody, which continuously repeats and mutates. Remembering this increasingly complex sequence is extremely difficult. I was in despair…But Maurice Béjart remained calm: ‘Don’t worry,” he reassured me, “everything will be fine.” And for the performance, there was a light mounted on a table behind the audience that was aimed at Béjart so that I, and only I, could see his hands and face. Before each new passage, he gave me the theme symbol so that I had time to figure out what to do and I never got lost. That was the first time in my life that I was dancing with a prompter, and really, what a prompter!”
Maya Plisetskaya in Bolero
Béjart, in the same magazine issue, stated that Plisetskaya, a classically trained ballerina, could perform any modern dance, but a dancer who specialized in the modern style wouldn’t be able to repeat Plisetskaya’s performances in the ballet classics: “The work of two renowned artists (Maya Plisetskaya and Vladimir Vasiliev – A.M.), famous worldwide for its achievements in the field of classical ballet, was a revelation for me. They were much more prepared than the so-called modern dancers to accept a whole new dance language.”
MORE ABOUT MEETINGS WITH MAYA
At the time, every meeting with Maya was important to me. Apparently, she enjoyed talking with me too, because one day she suddenly exclaimed: “And why am I compelled to spend my life talking with people who aren’t interesting to me, rather than talking to my loved ones, whom I seldom see?” Many celebrities seemingly faced the same problems. Margot Fonteyn, whom Maya held in high regard, wrote in her memoirs about the dangers posed by false friends: they flatter you incessantly, provide small services, and assert that you are the greatest of dancers, so they treat you like a queen. Although in a crowd of admirers there are sincere people with the best intentions, even so these praises unwittingly distort your view of yourself. You have to be a true artist to find the opportunity to be yourself in the atmosphere of general worship, knowing for sure that any pretense and flattery belittle your art and disfigure a person.
I was very grateful to Maya and Rodion for not changing their attitude towards me and my family when we were denied a visa by the Visa Office. My family spent the whole summer in Zagoryanka in the country with Rakhil Mihaelovna and Maya. The children staged a concert for her: my fifteen-year-old daughter Alice sang Russian songs, eight-year-old Anya, Maya’s brother Alexander’s daughter, danced, and my six-year-old son Phillip read fables with sweeping gestures. He recited them so expressively that Maya emphatically stated that he was genuinely talented. Her opinion came to mind when Phillip won first prize at the New York Festival of Independent Film for a satirical horror movie. A review appeared in “The New Russian Word” by Oleg Sulkin with the headline, “Horribly Talented.”
Azary Messerer with Maya Plisetskaya
THE ENTRY IN THE ENCYCLOPEDIA
In 1987, Maya, Rodion Shchedrin, and Asaf Messerer came to Boston for a Russian art festival. As an emigrant, I was concerned that I would hurt them with my presence, and after the performance I slipped backstage, trying to go unnoticed. I immediately found myself embraced by musicians—friends of my mother’s, who had recently died rather suddenly in Moscow. That was when I first realized the Reconstruction had brought a breath of freedom, and former compatriots no longer had to be afraid to meet us.
After that festival, I decided that I could now write a lengthy article about Maya in English. This article was published in the magazine “Dance Chronicle,” and I was very proud of it. The magazine was very technical — the editor asked me to pinpoint all of Maya and Rodion’s ranks and titles. Later it turned out that at the time of the Reconstruction, old Soviet regalia was not held in high esteem so Rodion had some strong words for Maya about my article. Maya couldn’t read English, although my first wife gave her a few lessons and said that Maya had good language skills. She had probably been careless, as she knew she would always be surrounded by well-wishers who could translate foreign languages for her. It was a pity because she got to deal with greats such as John and Robert Kennedy, François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, Frank Sinatra, and Gregory Peck. Her memories would have been so much brighter and accurate if she had conversed with them without interpreters. It was also a shame because Maya decided that my article since Rodion had criticized one thing about it, was really quite awful. Meanwhile, it was reprinted in the prestigious “Oxford Encyclopedia of Ballet” without, to my surprise, any cuts.
I called Maya during her last visit to New York for the presentation of her book published in English. At the end of the conversation, I asked her when we would meet again. The answer discouraged me: “well, you know how it is in the world.” Yes, at our age it is difficult to know anything for sure. Sad, but true: in this world I will probably never see her again. She will be 90 years old next year, and I am already 75. But always, when I think of her, she appears in my memory doing the “bowing presentation” on the lawn in Sortavala — young, laughing, loving, with flowing and gentle hands…
By Azary Messerer
Translated by Anna Patricia Billiard
Edited by Boris Pevzner