Lynn René Bayley
, May 2011
We were very fortunate, in the latter part of the 20th century, to have such fabulous and complementary dancers as Maya Plisetskaya and Margot Fonteyn: Fonteyn, the perfect classical dancing machine, always flawless and exuberant if usually the same in expression, Plisetskaya, the more flamboyant and expressive (her face was constantly changing expression, as Maria Callas did), always pushing the envelope of classical ballet to incorporate modern styles and techniques. Plisetskaya overcame a body build that, though beautiful, was not classic for a ballerina. Her upper legs were just a little too muscular, her long arms beautiful in movement but not always steady in tableaux, yet she was fortunate to find choreographers who could highlight her strengths and mask her slight flaws. She also had a few tricks in her arsenal that neither Fonteyn nor any other ballerina had, acrobatics that were both smoothly integrated and eye-popping. Primary among these was an ability to do complete hip rotation like one who is double-jointed, and she fortunately retained these skills—as Fonteyn did with hers—into her middle-50s, a remarkable career span for a dancer.
This excellent video captures performances from the latter period of Plisetskaya’s career, 1976–80, with a more simplified choreography from 2000. The bonus scenes are the actual documentary; primarily, this is a full performance video. The visual and audio quality of Carmen-Suite and La Rose malade are quite poor, being grainy in places with occasional blurs when the dancers move very quickly, though I’m sure that the German producers of this DVD did their utmost to clean them up. The sound quality is also rough, even though it is a pleasure to hear a first-rate conductor like Gennady Rozhdestvensky leading the first-named. The Carmen-Suite is also fascinating in giving us a chance to see the late Alexander Godunov in exceptionally good form, before his long, slow deterioration as a dancer after his defection to the West (undoubtedly due to his growing alcoholism). I never saw him dance this well once he came to New York. He is simply splendid here, not only in his solos but also in partnering Plisetskaya, and I am also highly impressed by Viktor Barykin as the captain. As Plisetskaya explains in the conversation segment, Carmen-Suite was her first major step toward integrating ballet and modern dance, and certain segments of it (her interaction with the toreador, and with Don José in the “flower song” sequence) were considered so erotically charged that it was banned for three months after the first performance. Watching it today, it seems a bit less shocking (we’ve had so much worse in the years since) but still innovative, sort of Carmen meets West Side Story. Rodion Shchedrin also explains how the task of rewriting the score fell to him, as Shostakovich turned the task down because Bizet’s score “intimidated” him, and Khachaturian felt there was nothing he could do with it, either. Shchedrin’s reworking of it is imaginative and colorful in addition to complementing Alberto Alonso’s fascinating choreography, which employs Maya’s eye-popping full hip rotations in her pas de deux with Godunov. In most of her solo sequences, she is an earthy, confident, sexual woman but not wanton. Her Carmen struts and challenges, occasionally breaking into classical moves yet always returning to modern dance formations.
Romantic Encounter was a 1975 TV film based on Turgenev’s Spring Torrents. Some of the non-dance footage is included in the bonus material, but this 19-minute segment combines the various dance sequences. Plisetskaya is more classical here, occasionally flowing her long arms to give viewers a suggestion of her Odile/Odette in Swan Lake (a complete performance by her of this ballet exists on DVD, but I’ve been told by dancers it is so darkly filmed that it is barely watchable) while showing both her and partner Anatoly Berdyshev—who is not entirely steady or consistent—in stunning Pierre Cardin designs. In the Sleeping Beauty extract, one can make a direct comparison between Plisetskaya and Fonteyn, showing that the former could not always keep her long arms steady when extending them in tableaux.
In addition to Carmen, I am especially impressed by La Rose malade, choreographed by Roland Petit to the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. It is typical of Petit that he creates continuously flowing movement; every move leads seamlessly to the next, and the next, and the next in an almost unbroken structure from start to finish. Plisetskaya is with him every step of the way, and here she had the good fortune to be partnered by Valery Kovtun, who was an excellent dancer. There is no scenery in this short ballet, just a backdrop, but scenery is unnecessary when the dancing is this good and the choreography fills space so well. Keeping almost perpetually in motion aids our perception of perfection in Plisetskaya’s movements, which are consistently graceful and athletic. She could also hold a position, when held aloft by her partner, with legs straight up in the air perfectly steady in acrobatic formation. She had strong legs!
Ave Maya is Plisetskaya in three-inch chunky heels, wearing a black dress, waving two fans in slow, sinuous arcs and interweaving patterns. Since she doesn’t have much if anything to do with her legs, she manages OK in the heels, but I wonder if she’d have been even more graceful in flats. One must cut her some slack in this, however, since she was 75 years old at the time.
In addition to the conversation with Plisetskaya and Shchedrin concerning Carmen, the Life in Pictures is fascinating as it shows her from the time she was a child through several phases of her career, including some black-and-white footage from the Bolshoi, I’d guess from the 1950s or early 1960s. I am also much taken by the short excerpts from a piece called The Sea Gull, an unbilled bonus track from 1980 that, except for Ave Maya, is in the best condition of all. I suppose this is a teaser for a complete performance of this work to be released in the future. Whether you are a serious student or casual fan of ballet, this DVD is a must.