Famous Russian Women

Maya Plisetskaya, great Russian dancer

For some ballerinas, their legendary status is a given and recording twenty-five curtain calls and reviews most of us would kill for doesn't seem in the least conceited. Maya Plitsetskaya is one of these. Born into post-Revolutionary Russia's greatest dancing family, the Messerers, Plisetskaya seemed destined for a life on the stage. Her uncle, Asaf, was an outstanding teacher whose students make up a roll call of Soviet ballet: Galina Ulanova, Vladimir Vasiliev, Ekaterina Maximova. Her aunt, Sulamif, was a Bolshoi ballerina (as well as swimming champion of Moscow for five consecutive years). At age 91, she still travels the world teaching class.

Born in 1925, Plitsetskaya's early childhood was lived in the shadows of Stalinism. Her father's disappearance in 1937 - confirmed as his death only fifty two years later - and her mother's subsequent imprisonment left her, aged eleven, officially labeled as 'daughter of an enemy of the people'. Her writing, in places, offers a unique personal perspective on the terrors of those years: not the detailed, picking-at-the-bones of an adult mind, but a child's eye view - removed, detached, selfish, even. In a single paragraph, Plisetskaya paints a startling picture of the now famous pre-dawn arrests: the roughness, the search, her pregnant mother's tears, her brother's screams, the inquisitive neighbours. And there observing it all is little Maya: frightened for her father, but unable to separate that fear from her concern that her new dress, sewn by her mother for the impending parade in Red Square, would now never see the light of day.

Unfortunately, not all the writing matches this vivid episode and too much of the book, like many autobiographies, is made up of long lists of names. The inclusion of the Russian patronymic, in addition to the first and last name, seems to add a dozen pages to an already lengthy book. In forty-nine chapters, Plisetskaya weaves through her life, recording the rehearsals and performances interspersed with 'political instruction', the communal apartments, the KGB minders and the mindless bureaucracy that made up the life of a Soviet artist. Her regular brushes with authority are recounted in detail, and few opponents emerge well from the tale.

Throughout it all runs her struggle to shake off the official designation nevyezdnaya - unexportable - that kept her from travelling with the Bolshoi Ballet on their tours abroad. A photograph of a flying leap in 1956 - exactly the year in which Plisetskaya was barred from joining the Bolshoi at Covent Garden - demonstrate the powerful physicality that London was missing.

The ban was finally lifted in 1959, when she was allowed to tour the US, but her absence from that triumphant London visit in 1956 seems to have denied her her rightful place in the British version of ballet history. Here, she is best known for a record number of performances on the gala circuit of Anna Pavlova's Dying Swan, but her repertoire and choreographic endeavours were extensive. She danced Swan Lake over eight hundred times and in the book she lists the world leaders who sat through those performances. If you thought that Prime Minister Gandhi, Presidents Kennedy and Nasser, Emperor Haile Selassie, Marshal Tito, Chairman Mao and Comrade Kruschev had nothing in common, think again. They all saw Maya Plisetskaya dancing a swan.

Maya Plisetskaya's career stretched over sixty years - and counting. Her latest performance was in 1996, at the age of 71, and I certainly wouldn't put money on her hanging up her pointe shoes for good. Her account of that career can be read as a colourful - if highly personal - account of one of the most extraordinary periods in recent history: not only the view from the other side of the curtain, but the view from the other side of the iron curtain, too.