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Plisetskaya: A Sketch for a Portrait

NOTE:

Voznesensky’s portrait of Maya Plisetskaya is one of the thirty-three-year-old poet’s rare excursions into prose. It appeared recently in a slightly longer form, in the Soviet drama magazine Teatr (June 1966). Voznesensky’s sketch expresses, among other things, the impatience of many Russian intellectuals with the traditionalism of Soviet ballet, where Plisetskaya is an outstanding exception. It also mocks the notion, often maintained in conservative circles, that “genius”—given the proper social and material conditions—can somehow be taught.

In her name is heard the splash of applause. In Russian it rhymes with weeping willows, Elysian fields, and Advent.

There are geographical poles, climatic poles, magnetic poles.

Plisetskaya is the magical pole.

She spins the audience into the furious vortex of her thirty-two fouettés. Witchcraft: she catches you up and holds you fast.

There are ballerinas of silence—snow-flakes that melt. This one is an infernal spark. When she dies the world burns.

Even her silence is the furious roaring hush of expectation: the tense moment of stillness between lightning flash and thunder clap.

Plisetskaya is the Tsvetayeva1 of ballet.

Her rhythms are precipitous and explosive.

THERE ONCE WAS A LITTLE GIRL called Maya or Marina—it doesn’t matter which. She was already as fearful as a wild animal, and just as fearsome. The force of destiny had already declared itself in her. They raised her on gruel and milk pudding, bound her up in braids ‘till it hurt, crammed her with ABC’s. The silver coin she played with rolled, edge gleaming, under the dusty belly of the sideboard…

Even then she was tormented by her gift, as yet obscure to her, but nothing to be trifled with.

What can I do—poet and first on earth of us.
Here, where black is gray
Where inspiration’s bottled in ther- moses—
Such immeasureableness in a world of measures…

Every gesture of Plisetskaya’s is a frantic cry. Her dance is a query—an angry, reproachful “How dare you?”

What to do about weightlessness in a world of weights? She was born the most weightless of all. In a world of heavy dull objects. The most airborne in an earthbound world.

It seems to me that the décor of Raymonda is oppressive. The clumsiness of the production maddens.

So she dances in solitude and despair—the dismay of genius before mediocrity. This is the sense of her every role.

Her quick blood spins her round…. This is no mincing salon ballerina, but, for the first time, a real woman crying out from the center of her being…

There is not enough fire for her in this lukewarm world…This is how she loves: no half-measures. Nothing in whispers. No compromises.

A woman journalist from abroad asked her: what do you hate most of all? She answered, mischievously: milk pudding.

This is not just the tear-stained pique of childhood. As for all artists, everything is serious. So naturally the most hateful thing is milk pudding. It stands for everything insipid, vulgar, standardized, and deadly to the spirit.

Isn’t she talking about milk pudding when she says in her diary: “People must stand up for their convictions—and not with the assistance of the police, or by denunciations—but only by the force of their own spirit.”

And further on: “I have little respect for those whose guiding principle consists in the words ‘Recant or perish’.”

Maya Plisetskaya has no time for milk pudding! She is a master of her art…

In Russian, ballet rhymes with flight. Some flight is supersonic. Here is the furious energy of the master craftsman. Having overcome the limits of the body, movement becomes a thing of the spirit.

There are those who say that Plisetskaya is too concerned with form. “Formalists”2 are people without mastery of form. That is why they are so preoccupied with form, and why it makes them envious in others. Those eternal plodders—they puff and blow over their one miserable rhyme, sweat over their twenty fouettés. Plisetskaya, like Tsvetayeva, has craftsmanship to spare; she is not a slave of form. “I am not,” as she says, “one of those who see, behind the densely tangled laurels of success, 95 per cent work and 5 per cent talent.”

Fighting words.

I ONCE KNEW A POET who boasted that he could teach anybody to be a poet in five man-years. And a Pushkin in ten man-years? Yet that man hadn’t even been able to teach himself.

We have forgotten the meaning of the words: talent, genius, inspiration. Without them art is nothing. As Kolmagorov’s3 experiments have shown, art cannot be programmed. Two attributes of man cannot be fed into a machine: his sense of religion and his sense of poetry.

Talent cannot be grown like potatoes. It’s national resource, like radium deposits, healing springs, or autumn in Sigulda.4 Plisetskaya’s style is just such a marvel, a national resource.

Art is always the breaking of barriers: man wishes to express himself in ways other than those fixed by nature. Why space travel? Man’s spiritual way is towards a sense of the miraculous. This is called art. It begins by overcoming the traditional modes of expression. The whole world walks upright but some people prefer the horizontal. At the circus, the public gasps when a body flies through the air at a 30 degree angle.

Stravinsky wounds the eye with his brilliant colors. Scriabin told colors by ear; like a blind man, he felt them through his fingertips on the keyboard. The ear becomes an organ of sight. Painters are seeking three dimensions and movement on the static canvas.

Ballet does more than overcome gravity. It crashes the sound barrier. Hands and shoulders convey things of supreme importance for which speech is not subtle enough. Skin thinks and finds its modes of expression…

In Romeo there is a moment when silence, given utterance by the hero, sails like an invisible but palpable balloon to the fingers of Juliet. She takes this materialized sound in her hands like a vase, and caresses it with her fingers. Sound perceived by touch! In this way, ballet is tantamount to love. While the shoulders converse, and the legs are sunk in thought, the hands are engaged in some private business of their own. The realm of sound has been taken over by movement. We see sound. Sound is form. The human figure is a means of communication.

The comparison with Tsvetayeva was not made at random.

WHAT A FEELING Plisetskaya has for poetry! I remember her in black, seated on a couch, as though she had drawn away from the others. She leaned over, her face in half-profile. Her eyes were switched off and she listened with her neck, with her Modigliani neck, with the line of her back, She listened with her skin. Her earrings quivered. Her nostrils quivered.

She loves Toulouse-Lautree. In summer she renews herself on the Biblical shores of Sevan in Armenia…

Someone sent by a fashion magazine once asked her what she ate. (Those ethereal sprites and ephemeral sylphs of all time might say: “My négligée consists of one drop of Chanel.” Or: “One rose petal is lunch enough for a ballerina.”) Plisetskaya’s answer was thunderous, Homeric. Only artists and Olympians give such answers. “I could eat a horse,” she said.

She has the force of a Mayakovsky. What a master of ridicule and repartee!

I first met her in a house where everything speaks of Mayakovsky. On the walls Chagall smiled, a Tishler flowered, and Mayakovsky groaned in the cubes of his self-portrait.

Plisetskaya in gray was moving her fingers, as she talked about hands in ballet. It can’t be conveyed in words. Her hands, just her hands, rippled. Her legs and torso were merely a vase for those nakedly twisting stalks.

This house is dangerous. The eternal presence of Mayakovsky, like the Commandatore’s, is crushing to mediocre spirits. Not everyone can take such company. Buy Maya can.

She is the most modern of our ballerinas. The century has its poetry, its painting, and its physics—but not its ballet. She is a dancer of twentieth century rhythms. She shouldn’t dance among swans, but among cars and cranes! I see her against the stark lines of Henry Moore and the chapel of Ronchamp…

Her figure has sweeping Egyptian lines. Her name is like a thunder clap. The name of a goddess or a pagan high priestess. Maya.

Translated by Max Hayward

  1. 1

    Marina Tsvetayeva (1892-1941), the great Russian émigré poet whose work, though highly emotional, is unsentimental in the extreme. Her idiom is strong, harsh, condensed—she breaks and reshapes syntax abandoning the traditions of Russian poetry. Tsvetayeva, who hanged herself two years after her return to Russia from France in 1939, remained unpublished in the Soviet Union until after Stalin’s death. Since then two volumes of her selected works have appeared.

  2. 2

    Formalist” is a common epithet of disparagement in orthodox Soviet criticism, applied to artists who are supposedly preoccupied with form at the expense of content.

  3. 3

    This famous Russian mathematician is interested in the application of mathematics to poetry.

  4. 4

    Sigulda is a summer resort in Latvia. “Autumn in Sigulda” is the title of a poem by Voznesensky.

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