Maya Plisetskaya: What Made The Russian Ballerina Special?

As reports of Maya Plisetskaya’s death emerged from Russia, officials from around the ballerina’s home country released statements offering condolences to Plisetskaya’s family and friends while, at the same time, paying tribute to the memory of Plisetskaya.

Plisetskaya, a legendary Russian ballerina, died Saturday in Munich after a heart attack. She was 89.

Russian President Vladimir Put was among those who remembered Plisetskaya for all that she shared with the world. In a prepared statement, Putin had this to say, according to

“She will remain a Russian ballet star for all time. She always faithfully, selflessly served art, and generously gave her inspired work to the people.”

Putin wasn’t the only one who praised Plisetskaya for her work. Those at Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre also were among her admirers in death, as the theater had this to say about Plisetskaya, according to Yahoo! News:

“The star of Maya Mikhailovna Plisetskaya, who became the embodiment of the very essence of ballet art for several generations of spectators from all over the world, its refined beauty and regalness, will now shine from heaven.”

These are examples of just two of the thousands who shared memories and tributes to Plisetskaya. The Russian ballerina clearly had an impact on many, but who exactly was she?

It’s a difficult question to answer, but many can agree on one thing: Maya Plisetskaya was, without argument, one of the best dancers of the 20th century. Many believe she helped to change the way ballet was seen in her country, and indeed, throughout the world.

Plisetskaya was known for her stunning looks, including her red hair, large eyes, and long legs, the fluidity of her movements and the raw emotion she displayed while dancing, which made each of her performances a rare art form. Some of Plisetskaya’s more memorable performances included her parts in Dying Swan, Anna Karenina, and Carmen.

Plisetskaya began touring with Russia’s Bolshoi Theater in 1943 when she was 18, and she continued to perform until she retired in 1990. She was 65.

Maya Plisetskaya was known primarily for her performances on the stage, but she also became a controversial and outspoken opponent of communism and brutality by the Soviet state.

Plisetskaya’s criticism stemmed largely from the treatment of her family under the Soviet system. Maya was born into a prominent Jewish family, and her father, who was considered an enemy of the state, was shot and killed under Stalin’s regime. Her mother, who was an actress, was sent to a labor camp as an alleged traitor.

Still, despite what The Washington Post called “humiliating and shabby” treatment, Plisetskaya remained in Russia throughout her career, largely because she enjoyed being part of the Bolshoi Theater company. As such, Maya Plisetskaya quickly became a symbol of art and culture in the Soviet Union.

Plisetskaya is survived by her husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin. He and Maya Plisetskaya had no children.

[Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images]