Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Master Class: Maya Plisetskaya’s “Bolero”

The term “masterpiece” gets thrown around far too often these days. While I have seen it applied to cuisine, architecture and two-dimensional visual art, it’s not just a static finished product, but a performance, a live event that is best seen in motion.

With the grand re-opening of Moscow’s hallowed Bolshoi Theater this week, one cannot help but think of the most well-known ballets danced on the stage, including Swan Lake, Spartacus and The Nutcracker, all of which have roots in Russia. The theatre, however, produced no greater star in the twentieth century than Maya Plisetskaya.

Born in 1925 and still alive today, Plisetskaya faced a number of obstacles on her way to becoming one of the most seminal stars of the Bolshoi. Her father was executed during the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s, her mother was sent to a gulag, and she fought against anti-Semitism and the supposed limitations of her physicality – mainly that she was a fiery redhead with milky skin – to earn international acclaim and the rare honour of being named prima ballerina assoluta, a title conferred to very few dancers to this day. Retiring in 1990, Plisetskaya never slowed down as a ballerina, having danced the lead in Swan Lake as late as 1986 to considerable acclaim, at the age of 61. Maya Plisetskaya is considered the Maria Callas of the ballet world.

While there is no consensus for which of her performances ranks as the greatest, for me her finest work was the free-form, modern dance routine set to Ravel’s Bolero in 1975. At the age of 50, Plisetskaya showed she was in top form in this fifteen-minute performance, which she danced as a solo piece accompanied by 40 men onstage. Set on an elevated but unadorned white dance space against a black background, she danced the piece barefoot, her hair tied back and pulled away from her face, dressed in a simple white tank top and black trousers. The set incorporated traditional ballet points and positions but infused in a modern style. What makes the piece so compelling is that Plisetskaya may be accompanied by dozens of other dancers mirroring her movement, the first and only focus is on the prima ballerina herself. Her continual rocking and swaying at certain points, rhythmically timed to the syncopations of the orchestra, create a mesmerizing effect that demonstrated an absolute control over every nuance of her body, from the smallest toe to her fingertips, to the top of her head. One could almost imagine that her supreme mastery might have compelled her to make her hair stand on end by sheer force of will.

The point of the piece is not to recreate verisimilitude, or time and place. It’s a free-form dance piece that is meant to showcase only one thing: Maya Plisetskaya, and her God-given talents alone.

Sometimes words fail do fail even this writer, no matter how verbose I might be. Words cannot compare to the majesty and raw beauty of Plisetskaya’s finest performance. See below, and be mesmerized.