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Maya Mikhailovna Plisetskaya (Russian: Майя Михайловна Плисецкая; born November 20, 1925) is a Russian ballet dancer, frequently cited as the greatest ballerina of modern times. Maya Plisetskaya is a naturalized Spanish citizen.
Maya Plisetskaya was born in Moscow into a prominent family of Jewish artists. She went to school in Spitsbergen, where her father worked as an engineer. In 1938, he was executed during the Stalinist purges, while her mother Rachel Plisetskaya (or Ra Messerer), a silent-film actress, was deported to Kazakhstan. Thereupon Maya was adopted by her maternal aunt, the ballerina Sulamith Messerer.
Maya studied under the great ballerina of imperial school, Elizaveta Gerdt. She first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre when she had just turned 11 years of age. In 1943, she graduated from the choreographic school and joined the Bolshoi Ballet, where she would perform until 1990.
Maya Plisetskaya in the 1964 production of Don Quixote.
From the beginning, Maya was a different kind of ballerina. Unlike many ballerinas, she did not spend any time in the corps de ballet. She was named principal ballerina immediately after graduation. Her red hair and striking looks made her a glamorous figure on and off the stage. Her long arms had a fluidity that to this day remains unmatched; her interpretation of The Dying Swan, a short showcase piece made famous by Anna Pavlova, became Maya’s calling card. Maya was known for the height of her jumps, her extremely flexible back, the technical strength of her dancing, and her charisma.
Despite her acclaim, Maya was not treated well by the Bolshoi management. She was Jewish in an anti-Semitic climate, and not allowed to tour with the company in 1956. It wasn’t until 1959 that the world got to see Maya Plisetskaya, and she changed the world of ballet forever. Maya Plisetskaya set the bar higher for ballerinas everywhere, both in terms of technical brilliance and dramatic presence.
Maya’s most acclaimed roles included Odette-Odile in Swan Lake (1947) and Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (1961). In 1958, she was honoured with the title of the People’s Artist of the USSR and married the young composer Rodion Shchedrin, in whose subsequent fame she shared.
After Galina Ulanova left the stage in 1960, Maya Plisetskaya was proclaimed the prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi Theatre. In the Soviet screen version of Anna Karenina, she played Princess Tverskaya. In 1971, her husband wrote a ballet on the same subject, where she would play the leading role. Anna Karenina was also her first attempt at choreography. Other choreographers who created ballets for her include Yury Grigorovich, Roland Petit, Alberto Alonso, and Maurice Bejart.
In the 1980s, Plisetskaya and Shchedrin spent much time abroad, where she worked as the artistic director of the Rome Opera Ballet and the Spanish National Ballet of Madrid. At the age of 65, she finally retired from the Bolshoi as a soloist. On her 70th birthday, she debuted in Bejart’s number choreographed for her and entitled « Ave Maya ». Since 1994, she has been presiding over the annual international ballet competitions called Maya.
On the date of her 80th birthday, the Financial Times summed up current opinion about Maya in the following words: « She was, and still is, a star, ballet’s monstre sacre, the final statement about theatrical glamour, a flaring, flaming beacon in a world of dimly twinkling talents, a beauty in the world of prettiness » . The following year, Emperor Akihito presented to her the Premium Imperiale, informally considered a Nobel Prize for Art.