Azari Plisetsky – an artist without borders
We shared a namesake: we shared the honor of being named after our common uncle, Azary Azarin (Messerer), an outstanding artist. As we grew up together and often met in childhood, we began to be told apart by our hair color – he was black-haired Azari, and I was white-haired Azary. Many years later, this difference disappeared in the literal sense of the word – we went bald, and it’s hard now to tell which one of us is older. But in childhood and adolescence, the two years between us were very important, and I admired him as an elder brother.
I remember well how I watched him in awe as he swam freestyle in the Oka River in Polenovo where we were in a summer camp in postwar 1946. I didn’t know how to swim then and asked him to teach me. He was the first to sit on the two-wheeled bike I had been gifted and ride it through the square next to the Bolshoi Theater, calling forth another spring of jealousy within me. Unlike me, he had an excellent ability with technology, especially aeromodelling (manufacture of aircraft models, DIY).
But most of all I admired how well he played the piano. I studied with him at the Central Music School. He was in the first class, but I was only in the junior preparatory class. After he performed an impetuous piece called “Grasshoppers” I decided that he was a great pianist, no worse than his classmate Vladimir Ashkenazy.
We had a lot in common. First of all, neither of us knew our fathers. I was two years old when mine was killed by fascist bombs, and his father was shot in Stalin’s Terror when Azary was 5 months old. In one of the most idyllic corners of the globe, at the mountainous alpine lake an hour out of Lausanne, where Azari worked, we recalled our early childhood and his hardships. The lake was so deep and so clean that we could see all the way to the bottom and the reflection there of the snow-capped mountains. In such circumstances, it was difficult to remember the horrors of concentration camps, where baby Azari and his mother were held. A few months before Azari had visited that camp. As a former prisoner, he was invited by Kazakh President Nazarbayev to the forum on “Memory for the Sake of the Future”. Credit has to be given to the organizers of the forum – it was the first time a former territory of the Soviet Union hosted a conference dedicated to the memory of the women and children who languished in the gulags. Azari went to the forum with his friend Luba (Luba Kivi-Minsker, Doctor of Chemistry and professor at the Technical University in Lausanne – A.M)
The form participants were showed documentary films, as well as paintings and portraits of the women of the camps. Many, like Rakhil, were young beauties. I asked Azari what he remembered most of his trip to Kazakhstan.
– I was amazed at how good the forum participants’ Russian was – he said – such pure Russian has all but disappeared, even on the television they’ve started to just use dirty Russian. Apparently, these people learned from the best professors, exiled to Kazakhstan in the 30s. The exiled academics, educated in pre-revolutionary schools, taught Russian and literature like genuine connoisseurs. When the official program ended, we stayed at the location of one of the old camps. We went out into the wilderness, along a ditch. We came upon the chaos and din of crows. I had never seen so many crows. I asked the woman who accompanied us from the museum why there were so many crows, and was it like that everywhere in the Kazakh steppes? She said that according to Kazakh legend, wherever blood was shed, crows remain for over 200 years, nesting and croaking there. I got chills just listening to it. Every day, defenseless women were driven across this road for work. For sure, they could have been killed – no one would miss. Then we came to the chambers, moved around the edge of the marsh at the edge of a former, now dried up lake to experience what it was like for women working at the camp harvesting reeds with their bare hands. Every day their quota was 20 huge bales of reeds.
The reeds were used as fuel, and also to stuff mattresses. Bile rose in my throat when I imagined what a day of work was like for his mother. To touch it, to see the steppes going until the horizon, was stronger than any words.
Sulamif Messerer drove up via the steppes twice to secure our liberation from the camp. She even drove the truck herself when the soldier-chauffeur was exhausted from the long, monotonous road. I brought a souvenir that was very important with me. At the conference, they talked about how while the women were being led, Kazakh boys threw rocks of some type, from which the prisoners flinched away in fear. The guards mocked them, told them that not only were they not wanted in their home country, but they weren’t wanted there, either, so children threw rocks. Afterward, we found out that they weren’t throwing rocks at all, but lumps of pressed cheese. Kazakhs dry cheese made from horse milk in the wind and then form it into hard balls which cannot be cracked, you can only put it in your cheek and suck on it. They are very salty and, in the wilderness, save people from dehydration. So it was not out of hatred that the boys threw them, but out of sympathy for the women. Incidentally, there were compassionate people among the guards, too. The camp chief, Bogdanov, was remembered with kind words at the conference. He came and reassured the women when they cried one at a time, or as a chorus, together. Then he himself was imprisoned. The authorities knew that the hard labor regime in the camp could only be led by a complete sadist.
We were silent, listening to the quiet, looking at the wild goats that climbed the slope, and, to divert Azari from the gloomy memories, I started talking about modeling, which he was fond of as a child. The room where he lived was lined with aircraft models that he had made at a camp. The room was one of two that belonged to Sulamif in the huge communal apartment in Shepkinskii Way, behind the Bolshoi Theater, where the five of them lived. Judging by the long corridor with a dozen doors, at some point, it had been a hotel or an inn.
We ran down that corridor, and that was where Azari launched his models, which sometimes produced a great deal of noise.
– The noise was from the motor, which was given to me by the famous constructor Alexander Yakovlev – Azari continued his story – On the other side of the landing lived Yuri Fire, the director of the Bolshoi Theater, who was Yakovlev’s friend. I looked at Yakovlev with awe whenever we met on the landing; I had read a whole book about him. And once my sister Maya said: “Come, I’ll introduce you to him”, and led me into Fire’s apartment. Yakovlev was moved by a nine-year-old boy was so dedicated to aircraft modeling, and promised to give me a gift. At some point, he arrived home late – in Stalin’s times his plant worked until midnight – and called on us. He had brought me a gas motor for models. Obviously, I wanted to try it out right then, so I filled it up, and at 12 o’clock at night the communal apartment was filled with the din from that motor. Everyone ran out and told me to shut it off immediately.
Last year, an old dream of Asari’s came true, to visit the island of Spitsbergen, where almost 80 years ago his father worked as a Soviet consul to Norway and led the northernmost shaft that mined coal for Leningrad. In the bitterest winters, in the 6-month-long polar night, he managed to provide tolerable living conditions for the minors, for which he was highly respected.
The mine is long gone, and in its place are a rusty construction site and slag hills, sharply discordant with the pristine beauty of the island, much to the dismay of the Norwegians. But the Russian colony is still there, on the land rented from Norway. Biologists, geologists, and weather forecasters all work at the research station there, which is brand new, modern, the consular building which Azari’s father could have only ever dreamed of. Next to the building remains a dilapidated bust of Lenin that is thought to be the northernmost statue of the leader. In a museum, he saw a large portrait of Mikhail Emmanuelovitch Plisetsky, photographs of him among miners, and Bonne, which replaced banknotes with the facsimile signature of the consul – now a numismatic rarity. Azary contributed to the collection, adding his father’s miner lamp with the inscription: “To M. E. Plisetsky for Bolshevik leadership from the workers of Barentsburg Mine. ” He showed me photographs he’d done of rare beauty:
-I didn’t expect to see colors and plants on the mountains of Spitsbergen Island. Some of the plants include, according to the scientists, dwarf birch and pine. They press themselves into the ground, as though they know their life is short, no more than a month. When we went there on a Norwegian steamer, everything was very bright, but there was no one around because it was 3 in the morning.
I recognized a lot of what my mother had once told me. For instance, white whales chase fist into picturesque Grinfjord when they are hunting. Sometimes polar bears come there. One bear, which showed up near a ladder, was described by Maya in her memoirs. She was shocked when he was killed. Nowadays, killing bears is prohibited, because there are few left. In any case, we didn’t see any this time around. And above the fjord rose the very same mountain that looked as though it had been cut with a razor that my mother had described. Not far from Ice Fjord, ice had crushed and sunk the tug “Ruslan”, and only three sailors were rescued. The death of the Ruslan crew was considered fabricated by his father by the NKVD amid accusations of espionage and sabotage.
Again I tried to distract him with childhood memories:
After seeing your models, Yakovlev said: ‘Drop ballet, occupy yourself with actual work, and you’ll become a plane builder’. And your teacher in the School of Music Lubov Dmitrievna Mihailova was very disturbed when they told her that her best student was following the legacy left behind by his sister and brother Alexander in the world of ballet. How did you feel, having gotten into a ballet school? Did you immediately find your calling?
-The first years were very difficult because at the time I had other interests as well – music, model design. The taste for ballet emerged later when I got my first solo. We were busy a lot: music lessons and special disciplines were added to an already full educational curriculum – and that’s not counting the almost daily stage appearances. We started at 8 am and finished somewhere between 6 and 7 pm. In the future, they shortened the schedule, since students couldn’t handle the workload. Participating in ballet and opera performances exposed us to high culture. For instance, to this day I know dozens of operas from start to finish by memory. A significant advantage was that the school was located near the Bolshoi Theater so we could watch outstanding artists such as Vakhtang Chabukiani, Asaf Messerer, and Alexei Ermolaev not only during performances but also during rehearsals and classes. Unfortunately, this possibility is no longer there for current students, because the ballet school was separated from the theater.
The first performance I was in was what was called a family production. It was The Nutcracker, and Maya danced Masha, Alik – Hans, and I was a trumpeting soldier. So many curiosities are tied to this ballet. I’ll never forget how in the future I’d dance the role of the main mouse. When Maya (Masha) falls asleep on the stage, I jump out after the war of the clocks, look around – there is a pause in the music here – and I suddenly hear the scream of three-year-old Misha, who had been taken to the ballet for the first time: “Azarik!” (Mikhail Messerer, Sulamif Messerer’s son, currently Ballet Master in Chief of Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg – A. M.)
After all those years in ballet school, Azari became a prince, not out of a frog, but of a mouse. I remember quite well the school’s final performance of the year in which he played a major role in The Nutcracker. It was a huge success, and with his diploma, his admission into the Bolshoi Theater seemed secured. Alas, all that was waiting for him was a bitter disappointment. The Bolshoi didn’t take him because Maya Plisetskaya was in disgrace at the time: she was under surveillance, wasn’t allowed outside the border, and received dozens of malicious letters. She described all this in extensive detail in two of her autobiographies. Eventually, after she married the famous composer Rodion Shchedrin, they left her alone and let her out of the country. At the same time, they finally allowed Arazi into the Bolshoi Theater. As they say, life is a striped pattern, and in that year he was lucky: the outstanding ballerina Olga Lepeshinskaya chose him as her partner.
– I am very grateful to Olga. I had wonderful teachers prior to her, of course, such as Nikolai Tarasov and Asaf Messerer, but she was the one who taught me how to dance as a partner. Dancing with Lepeshinskaya was very easy, she had excellent technique, and I listened to all of her advice. We toured many cities in the USSR together, as well as abroad in other socialist countries. In 1960 we visited Mongolia. We landed in Ulan-Bator in the dead of winter on a plane – the Il-14 – which didn’t have wheels, but skis. When the landing procedure was finished, I looked out the window and saw the door of a black limousine being opened and none other than Vyacheslav Molotov and his wife Polina Zhemchuzhnaya coming to greet us. When Lepeshinskaya left the plane, they all hugged. Naturally, I was amazed to see Molotov at such close quarters, and that he had even come to meet us at all. We sat in a luxurious car and drove through the steppes. The capital of Mongolia didn’t appear for a long time, we just saw some yurts. Finally, we drove up to a “protocol” house, which turned out to be Choybolsan’s residence (head of Mongolia). They housed us there. Inside, the cottage was smartly furnished, and the tables were always laden with brandy, chocolate, and fruit. Every night the USSR ambassador to Mongolia, Molotov, sent there by Khrushchev in disgrace, came to see us. He sat at our table and mainly talked to Lepeshinskaya, an old friend, so I didn’t talk to him much. I didn’t know at the time that he signed the hit list that my father was on. Did he remember that? Maybe not, he signed so many death lists! Then again, his memory was fantastic, judging by his stories.
Maya Plisetskaya and Azari Plisetsky in Carmen
We’ve involuntarily returned to that tragedy again. You traveled a lot, lived for a while outside the border, and perhaps from afar the miserable past was not so painful. Already by the early 60s, you had traveled to many places in the USA, the first country in the West that you visited. At that time, people of our generation in Russia had a very vague idea about America. And so did you, of course.
-Before America, I had visited Turkey, which was also a capitalist country, so I knew something of Western culture, and many artists from the Bolshoi were completely unprepared for the culture shock. Everyone was in awe of New York. It stunned and dazzled. At the sounds of police sirens and fire engines in the night, we’d rush to the windows in fear to see what was happening, not understanding that that was the nature of things there. The roar of the subway, steam coming from beneath manhole covers, and Times Square, with a large advertisement for an iron and blindingly bright illuminations, and, of course, all the shops filled with technical innovations, had our nose pressed against shop windows.
We settled into our hotel, which no longer exists, called “Governor Clinton” – they meant, of course, another Clinton, on 7th avenue, not far from Penn Station. In the morning they gave us our daily allowance and we all went shopping. One musician walked down several streets and discovered Macy’s, the department store, saw the blatant abundance, came back and said, “Here is my money, send me back home”. He simply went crazy, and they really did send him back immediately to Moscow.
The tour began in August, in a terrible heat that we all languished in. I remember I looked at the buses that had come to pick us up from our hotel, saw the drops on the darkened window, and thought we were all going to suffocate. We boarded the bus, and there was an unexpected chill. Before that, we didn’t know that buses are air-conditioned. Actually, the air-conditioning caused us problems too. In our hotel rooms, there were air-conditioners, and they had lots of buttons – red ones, green ones, it was impossible to tell what we were supposed to press, and often turned on the heater instead. . . The electricity went out occasionally because the circuits blew out when dozens of ballet dancers all tried to cook steaks on their irons at once. We didn’t have the money for restaurants: we were saving it all to buy gifts for loved ones back home, all sorts of rarities. We danced at the old Metropolitan, and our performances turned out to be the last ever held at that venue before it was demolished. Because Russians were considered a novelty for Americans at the time, we were invited to all possible meetings with artists, business people, and relatives.
I remember when you came back I was struck by your story about your American cousins and their numerous children. Of course, I couldn’t have imagined that 20 years later I’d have a strong friendship with them.
-It was the time of Khrushchev’s Thaw, and in order to improve relations with the United States, the artists at the Bolshoi were allowed to have American relatives again. Before this, everyone hid the fact that they had American relatives, and left that part of the questionnaire blank. When we landed in New York, there was a small welcoming party on the tarmac, and we saw among them a person who was practically identical to our director, Fire. Getting off the plane, Yuri Fire finally noticed his brother and shouted, “Myron! Aren’t you dead?” but our accompanying KGB agent reassured him, saying that they (the government) knew about him, so there’s no reason to get agitated. Myron stayed with us in the hotel and touchingly looked after his half-blind brother. We were fed once a day in a restaurant in the lobby of the hotel, and all of our relatives came there, including my cousins.
Unfortunately, we could only communicate via an interpreter, or rather, via ballerina Svetlana Scherbina, who knew some English. Stanley Plesent tried to talk with me in French, but, alas, I didn’t understand French very well. It was then that I decided to learn more languages, come what may, and now speak with Stanley on the telephone in English, French, and Spanish. Incidentally, he worked in Washington as a legal aid to President Kennedy and drove up to New York especially to meet us, and when we went to Washington on tour he invited us to stay in his house and we met his three young children – the fourth hadn’t yet been born. Now they are already over 50 and their children are going to college. My second cousin Emmanuel, an extremely charming man and a doctor, has as many children and grandchildren as Stanley.
As I recall, you also got to meet President Kennedy’s family, and Maya spends an entire chapter in her memoirs detailing her friendship with Robert Kennedy, who shared her birthday – November 20, 1925.
-Yes, the Kennedy family invited us to visit when we were touring in Boston. I met three brothers and their mother Rose. Many years later, Edward Kennedy came to Moscow on a visit, and I met with him at George Kostaki’s home, a renowned collector of Russian avant-garde paintings. He invited a group of painters and poets, Andrei Voznesensky in particular, to meet Kennedy as well. I came, and Edward recognized me. When they introduced me as Maya Plisteskaya’s brother, he remembered our trip to Cape Cod, and hugging me, said, “You and I share one destiny – we’re both someone’s brother”. I was grateful to him for that sympathy. When I was in the US, we flew from the East Coast to the West on a four-engine Lockheed plane called “Super Constellation” – it was a beautiful plane with three stabilizers. We flew for a long time. Now, planes fly at an altitude of 10 to 12 thousand meters, but back then we flew at around 5 thousand meters, so everything was easily seen. I got to do what is now considered unimaginable – I sat down in the co-pilot seat and started taking pictures of the Grand Canyon. I value that picture to this day. In Los Angeles, we lived not far from Hollywood – from our hotel window we could see the famous sign on the side of Beverly Hills.
We danced in a theater called “Shrine Auditorium”, a hall done in the Oriental style, and after every performance, we were invited to a famous movie star’s house, such as Shirley MacLaine and Walter Beatty. We were struck by American Trade Unions. For example, our impresario Sol Yurok had to pay the American musicians not to play since we had brought our own orchestra. However, the union considered that to be a breach of the contract and demanded they be paid for their time regardless. Furthermore, we had assumed that the dancers helped to set up the stage like they did at home so that the scenery for the play was set up quicker. But there, any changes that we made to the set were met with a storm of indignation from the workers, which amazed us: we were just helping the working class! Then we found out that that working class earned several times more than our soloists.
I think that was the first and last tour where they let the four of us out together: Maya, Alik, Asaf and I. Asaf was 60 then, and he was full of a creative force. It took him about all of two days to put together the choreography for Natalia Filippova and me to Dunayevsky’s wonderful music, with phenomenally effective lifts in the “fish” style, which is when a ballerina take a running leap across virtually the entire stage into the arms of her partner. In the US, Asaf gained enormous popularity with the press with his class concert. That ballet opened with the novice ballet dancers doing exercises at the barre. In order to not bring children from the USSR and take them out of school, in every city we stopped in we had to recruit new ones, which generated incredible excitement from the parents, who sat in the front row and watched how their children were selected and prepared for the performance. Recently, this ballet was performed with great success at the Bolshoi Theater under Mikhail Messerer.
After the tour, I began to see America in my sleep and dreamed of returning there again. When, a year later, I was offered a job in Cuba, I was torn for a while, but thinking that Cuba was close to America, I agreed. In March 1963, I flew to Cuba, as though extending my American tour. I had to “provide technical assistance to the brother country” by performing as a partner to prima-ballerina Alicia Alonso, teaching, and helping them set up their own ballets. My memories and impressions from my three months in the US were still fresh in my mind, and although the Americans had left Cuba, I expected to see traces of their half-century presence. In Havana, shops built by the Americans were everywhere, and even the names, like “Woolworth’s” were preserved. In them, I saw escalators, but no one using them because there was nothing to buy. American cars and tractors, without spare parts, quickly fell into disrepair. For foreigners, however, it was possible to buy food in a special shop, and once, waiting in line in such a store, I heard a girl cry, “Mama, look! Aunt-Swan bought meat”. Apparently, she had seen the performance of Swan Lake, featuring my wife Loipa Araujo.
Alicia Alonso and Azari Plisetsky
Ballets existed under a dictatorial regime and even prospered, as they did in royal courts, so Mihail Zhvanetski was right when he noted that “under the dictatorship, there are more ballets and more anecdotes”. Castro knew that ballet was a good way to showcase Cuba, and fully supported Alicia’s triumvirate: Alicia herself, the performer, her husband Fernando, the teacher, and her husband’s brother Alberto, the choreographer and founder of Cuban classical ballet. He even allowed the troupe to freely travel abroad, except, of course, to America, even though they rarely returned with all the performers. Many stars ran to America and Europe, but in Cuba you could always find a new, talented replacement. This is undoubtedly a great achievement of Fernando Alonso’s, who maintained good traditions, as well as of the Russian teachers who worked with me.
Castro would come to the ballets and talk with the artists backstage. I remember he caught one of the artist’s daughters in his hands and clapped his cap onto her head. The father of the girl asked Castro to autograph it, but Castro couldn’t sign it with a ballpoint pen. I happened to have a felt-tip one and handed it to Fidel. He gave me back a four-color ballpoint as a replacement souvenir and said, “They’re all full of red ink, but don’t think I’m an extremist, there just was no other ink”. I knew that as a power-grabber, he was against Communism. He even had a motto, “Humans against Communism”. Then he realized that he didn’t get along with the United States, as is well known, and when they tried to overthrow him in the failed Bay of Pigs operation, he made a bid for Soviet aid.
What is your impression of the legendary Che Guevara, since he was also a fan of ballet and you’ve met him up close?
-He was extremely photogenic. Always stood out in a crowd and behaved extraordinarily. For instance, during a reception, he suddenly offered to play a game of chess with someone. I knew the photographer Alberto Korda well, who took the famous shot of Che Guevara in the beret. They say that that portrait has spread around the world with the help of newspapers, T-shirts and banners, and that even the image of Christ has fewer copies. Interestingly enough, Korda took that picture by accident – his lens was aimed at a group of Cuban guerrillas. He didn’t even look at the shot, just handed the negative to his colleague, an Italian photographer. He was the one who focused on Che Guevara and enlarged that part of the picture. Korda, with a large effort, succeeded in getting the rights to that photo. And now his daughter, my former student, lives mainly on the fees made from the copies of that portrait, a favorite of revolutionaries of all stripes.
Despite all the difficulties, the 10 years you spent in Cuba were very fruitful and happy.
-I fell in love with Cuba, because it gave me a lot of opportunities for development. I was very impressed with the Cuban people, with their pre-red sense of humor that helped them survive the hardest circumstances. With Alicia Alonso, I danced all the classics: Swan Lake, Vain Precaution, Coppelia, and Giselle. Incidentally, the Cuban film for that ballet is still a great success and can be viewed on YouTube. But beyond that, I danced many modern pieces such as Apollo Musagete, staged by Balanchine. In the Bolshoi, I never would have dreamed of doing that. I also produced ballets. One of them was Canto Vital – the Song of Life, which has a long stage life. Last year the first dancer of the Royal Ballet of London, Carlos Acosta, chose it for his solo concert at the Coliseum Theater in London. I was present at his concerts, which were held daily for a week and were a huge hit. Acosta was not my student, he was a disciple of my students, so he represented the third generation. My direct students had dispersed all over the world: Jorge Esquivel is now a choreographer in San Francisco, Pablo Morra is the leading teacher of the Rome Ballet, and Orlando Slagado is in Buenos Aires. I’m not even talking about the famous premier at the ABT (American Ballet Theater) of Jose Manuel Carreno, who you and I met in New York. All of them have brought huge amounts of glory to Cuban ballet.
Many times I’ve seen you perform with the Cuban Ballet on tour in Moscow. I saw Giselle at the Palace of Congresses where you played the leading role very well, and also Carmen where you danced with the great Loipa Araujo, who became your wife.
-Loipa and I loved each other but didn’t make our relationship official for a long time. In 1965, we were preparing for the International Competition in the Bulgarian city of Varna, and I said, half joking, “if you win gold, I’ll marry you”. Of course, I made some contribution by helping her in every way as her partner. She won the gold medal, and we got married in Havana. Maya flew in to perform in Cuba and came to the wedding. Then Loipa and I toured a lot, including in Moscow. We were invited by Roland Petit (a prominent choreographer, artistic director of the Marseilles Ballet – A. M. ) to dance and teach in France. Now Loipa – a renowned teacher – gives master classes in the Paris Grand Opera and the Royal Ballet. I retain a friendship with her, despite the fact we have long since gone our separate ways, and in a few days she’ll fly to Lozanna to give lessons to our Bejart troupe.
I know that you’re an optimist, believe in your destiny, and don’t hold grudges against those who have hurt you. For example, you don’t have one against the artistic director of the Bolshoi Yuri Grigorovitch. He feuded with Maya because she vocally supported inviting well-known choreographers to the Bolshoi. As the director, Grigorovitch would not tolerate competition. This confrontation, of course, affected everyone who supported Plisetskaya.
-As I mentioned, in the 70s I worked in Roland Petit’s ballet. In Marselle the USSR Minister of Culture, Demichev, somehow came by, and the mayor of the city, Gaston DeFer, praised me at the reception and thanked me for my contribution to Franco-Soviet cooperation. Demichev told me he was glad to hear such high praise, and would I call him when I returned to Moscow. He really took my call and asked me what I desired. I said I’d like to apply my experience at the Bolshoi Theater. Yes, he said, of course. His first question was what was my housing situation. I kept quiet about an apartment since I knew he wouldn’t grant two wishes, and I wanted to teach at the Bolshoi Theater more than anything. He called his deputy and told him – take care of this. I came away delighted and then with amazement learned that Grigorovitch was able to immediately secure my candidacy – that was the kind of power he had then. At the Bolshoi, I could continue to work as a ballet dancer until early retirement, but I couldn’t work as a teacher under Grigorovitch. But everything, as they say, works out for the better, and it turned out that I won because after that I was invited to work for Bejart. So fate sometimes has a smarter, better plan than we do. Therefore, I have no grudge against Grigorovitch. Of course, I had to ask Demichev for an apartment (laughs).
Azari met the great choreographer Maurice Bejart for the first time in Cuba when his troupe “Ballet of the 20th Century” came on tour. Azari gave several lessons to Bejart’s dancers and had many conversations with the master in Spanish. Bejart offered him a consistent job, but Azary was locked into a contract with Cuba and his semi-feudal dependence on the Soviet Minister of Culture. He could hardly imagine that he would become Bejart’s closest aid for more than 20 years. They met again in 1978 when Bejart came to Moscow. The tour commanded enormous respect. Muscovites saw the original ballet Isadora for the first time, which Bejart staged for Maya Plisetskaya where she not only dances but also reads Yesenin’s poems from the stage. I interviewed him for the magazine Rovesnik, where I worked at the time, and he said that he values good classical training more than anything.
He noted that he didn’t have such a fruitful collaboration with any other family but the Messerer-Plisetskys. Of course, he didn’t just mean Maya and Asaf, who taught in the Bejart troupe in Brussels over the course of a year, but also you, because he had already received approval on a contract with you from Demichev.
-Subsequently, he also worked with Sulamif, Mikhail Messerer, and Anna (Alexandr Plisetski’s daughter – A. M.). As far as the dichotomy of classical and modern attitudes in his work, I can give a vivid example with Pablo Picasso. He began to copy Greek busts and finally created “Guernica”. Similarly, Bejart based his work off of the classics as an established form, invited the best classical teachers, because he knew that his troupe needed a solid foundation, and on that base, you could experiment and break any barrier. Relying on the Russian school, he became the greatest reformer of ballet and had an impact on all the major ballet masters of his time.
You actually became Bejart’s right hand, he often sought your counsel and used your ideas, like in the ballet The Overcoat by Gogol, where he gave you and you alone the right to shoot the rehearsals of new ballets. I was struck by one scene which you filmed, which revealed the practically mystical premonition Bejart had.
-It was in Florence. Bejart decided to use the famous model of the House of Versace in his ballet. Podiums were set up on stage, and models went back and forth between them while dancers danced, and it all blended together into one stream of movement. Gianni Versace, who was friends with Bejart, was in the hall. Using some incredible inspiration during rehearsals, Bejart gave Naomi Campbell a gun. She walked beneath an umbrella with Yael, who was a very tall, thin stagehand – Bejart chose him to play a mysterious figure. Yael was holding the umbrella, and beside him was the beautiful Naomi. They stopped in the middle of the stage; Naomi lifted the hand with the gun and aimed down the aisle. Berjart and Versace were standing in the aisle. Versace jokingly hid behind Bejart’s back, saying, “she’s going to shoot!” That was two weeks before the fatal shot. After the end of the performance I went to Span by car and suddenly heard that Versace was killed in Miami. I was absolutely shocked.
How did your filming help create Maya’s last ballet?
-Maya came to Genoa, where we were on tour, and asked Bejart to make a number for her birthday gala concert. Behart was very busy with rehearsals for his new ballet. Maya begged him, especially since she’d already chosen the music and brought a tape of Schubert’s Ave Maria with her. Bejart immediately came up with the idea: “Let it be the Ave Maya! And let Azary set up a video camera, and I’ll improvise something. But only this once. I won’t do it again.” We set up the music and he started improvising with two Japanese fans, which he was very familiar with. Bejart understood that Maya wouldn’t have any technique problems. He just walked, bent over, put the fans on the floor, walked around them, picked them up and finished an exquisite bow with the fans. Maya took her tape and learned, rather, improvised off of Bejart’s improvisation. Maya danced that piece, and then performed it again as an encore at her birthday gala, and then successfully repeated it in several countries.
What in your life has been especially painful, what memories evoke bitterness for you?
-First and foremost, of course, is the early death of my brother. We couldn’t save him. My longtime friend Igor Yushkevitch, who danced with Alicia Alonso before I did, got Alik a visa invitation letter so that he could come the America to get heart surgery, but messed up his address, sending it to Mayakovsky Street instead of Myaskovsky. The invitation got held up, and Alik was feeling worse, so he decided to have the operation in Moscow. He died on the operating table. I remember all of my arguments with my brother with pain, now. A good example that occurs to me was in Sverdlovsk during the years of the evacuation. Mom left at 6 am to the clinic where she worked at the front desk and left Alik and I two pieces of black bread. Like a child I ate my piece quickly, but Alik saved his. One day I was playing in the yard with other young boys when a supply sledge loaded with coal for the boiler came by. When they unloaded it, the driver said, “Come on, boys! I’ll give you a ride for a piece of bread”. I ran home and brought him the remaining piece, and he drove us around the house. We were all covered in coal dust by the end of it, but it was a complete delight. Only then did I realize that Alik had given me his bread. I have long remembered that with shame. Another moment of trauma and pain is Naum’s death (Naum Azarin was our cousin, a brilliant teacher and choreographer – A. M.). At 50 years old his body rejected both kidneys, and he died. I promised to give him one of my kidneys. We went to the doctor in Moscow, and he said when the time came he’d do the compatibility analysis so that they could operate. Naum lived with you in America, where they’d performed a successful operation on his heart. Once we were on the phone and he said, “Will you come?” It seemed to me that by asking that, he was really asking me if I had changed my mind. I have always been tormented by the fact that I might have been able to save him. I somehow missed that opportunity, and Naum decided to return to Moscow for a time. He died there.
With regard to my professional life, there were also plenty of untapped opportunities, especially in the production of new ballets. Maybe I raised the bar too high for myself, working with the most outstanding choreographers of the age such as Bejart, Petit, and Goleyzovsky. Their authority inhibited me, to some extent. On the other hand, given 50 years of teaching, I realized that that didn’t mix well with choreography. It’s no wonder that prominent choreographers didn’t want to spend themselves teaching. When they tried, it went badly. If you’re seriously engaged in teaching, then you’re always striving to do everything right, according to the canons. A certain conservatism develops in your nature, and this is the opposite of what a creative choreographer, who requires internal freedom and a complete lack of self-censorship, needs. At the ballet directors school in Moscow they taught us how to choreograph ballets in vain: it is impossible to teach it, especially when you limit what is permitted, because people develop tunnel vision.
In opposition to the old schools, Bejart created his own school is Lausanne to cultivate the desire and ability to create in young people. This school “without rules” was called “Rudra” by Indians (one of the names of the six-armed god Shiva, who, among other things, is considered the patron saint of dance. – A. M.) I worked there more than 20 years. We didn’t have a training program. There were no exams, no grades. We just looked at each other and discussed who to graduate, who to keep, and who to give new opportunities to. To decide to who admit, Bejart paid particular attention to classical training. But most of all he was interested in individuality. Physical looks didn’t matter to him at all, and when I told him during auditions, “Maurice, look at how beautiful her legs are, what a rise”, he replied: “Look in her eyes! It’s all in the eyes!” That ability to see the individuality of a performer always set Bejart apart. The main purpose of the school was to develop students’ creativity, that is, the ability to create. In additional to classical ballet, they studied modern dance, they had to sing, used percussion instruments to help with rhythm, and the possibility to seriously study either Spanish or Indian dance. Now we have representatives of 16 nationalities enrolled at the school, and at times that number was 29. And the troupe only has 36 people. It is a true “international ballet”. Students know that there is only a slim chance of them ever joining the troupe, but it’s still there, and they try for it. The main thing for them is the prestige of the school. It’s difficult to count the number of leading choreographers and troupe directors in the world who graduated from this school.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Evening twilight descended on the mountain lake where we had been talking for several hours, and I turned off the recorder. When and in what country would I see Azary again? All our lives I had accompanied him, either meeting him, or seeing him off, watching how economically he packed his suitcase – nothing extra. Fortunately, now we can see and talk to each other over Skype. After this conversation, I talked to him over webcam, and he showed me the wonderful views of the bay from his hotel room. He had just returned from a walk through Lima, the capital of Peru. Walking with his friend Misha Baryshnikov in the city, he says, is not very convenient: every other passer-by recognizes him, loudly expresses surprise, and then asks for an autograph. This is not the first time that Misha has invited Azary to take part in his tour as a teacher, or to give master classes in his theater in New York. Next year Azary will probably go to New York with his lovely daughter Sanya, who works as a translator in Paris but dreams of working in America.
After the master class, to which all the most famous ballet artists in New York will go, we’ll go to his favorite restaurant – “Samovar”. Roman Kaplan, the owner of the place, will treat us to his trademark cranberry tincture, and then, when the dancing starts, ask Azary to perform the Rumba or the Tango. And if he gets a talented partner, the audience will break out into applause, because despite his age, Azary dances masterfully, with the enthusiasm of the young.
By Azary Messerer
Translated by Anna Patricia Billiard
Edited by Boris Pevzner