Soviet-era Jewish ballerina danced artfully around politics

Maya Plisetskaya was an influential Jewish ballerina in the Soviet Union whose performances with the Bolshoi Ballet endeared her to generations of Jews in her homeland — and also drew the interest of the KGB, the regime’s infamous security apparatus.

The much beloved dancer, who died last May at 89, is the subject of a free multimedia presentation on Tuesday, March 8 at the Jewish Community Library.

Guy Baum

“Maya Plisetskaya: The Jewish Ballerina and the Stalinist Regime” was created by Guy Baum, an Israeli performing-arts researcher and former dancer. In an interview, Baum described Plisetskaya as a “remarkably gifted ballerina” who was able to perform the dying swan solo in the Bolshoi’s world-famous production of “Swan Lake” even into her early 60s. He also sees in her personal struggle — her parents were arrested during the Stalinist purges when she was a child, and her father, a member of the Communist Party, was later executed — an example of how “ideologies are choreographed.”

Plisetskaya’s improbable rise to the pinnacle of Soviet dance as the daughter of an “enemy of the people” has much to do with the prestige given to ballet and its practitioners in Russia. It is also a sober commentary on the sometimes tragic, sometimes glorious history of arts in the Soviet era.

Russia’s adoption of ballet as a national art reflected the country’s longtime devotion to French culture, from food (cream sauces and layered pastries) to music (heavy dollops of romantic sentiment), all adapted for the local palate. Cultural reforms under Czar Peter I gave ballet a foothold among the cosmopolitan elite in Moscow and St. Petersburg, a cultured minority that saw Western arts as a civilizing force in “backward” Russia.

A combination of strength and grace, Plisetskaya’s lyrical, soulful movements on stage and her refusal to abandon her Jewish identity made her an icon among Jews, who projected onto her performances their own stories of tragedy and redemption.

Maya Plisetskaya in “Romeo and Juliet” in 1961

She was designated a “prima ballerina assoluta,” a rare honor accorded to only a dozen ballerinas around the world. Audiences would cheer her entrance for minutes, expressing their delight in any slighting of the oppressive regime. This attracted the attention of KGB officials, who showed up at her performances. “They wanted to see who was applauding too much,” Baum said.

Yet Plisetskaya’s significance transcended those adoring audiences, in part because of the outsize importance of ballet in the Soviet era. It was a competitive arena where, like chess or gymnastics, the USSR could dominate its geopolitical rivals. When this doyenne and longtime foreign ambassador of Russian ballet died, President Vladimir Putin — a former KGB agent — sent condolences to her widower in Munich.

“Plisetskaya was culturally Jewish, but for obvious reasons she could not articulate a lot of her Jewish identity on stage,” said Janice Ross, a professor of performance studies at Stanford University who has written about Jewish dance pioneers Anna Halprin, who lives in Marin County, and Leonid Yakobson, the late choreographer.

Ross hosted Baum earlier this week to speak at her Stanford seminar “Dance and Conflict in Israel,” which examines ways dance is used to express identity, spirituality and political values. Baum is affiliated with the Israel Ballet.

“Dance and movement are important parts of the Jewish tradition,” he said in the interview, from wedding rituals and celebrations to penitence and mourning. While dance in Israel has been influenced by other cultural traditions — from folk dance to, more recently, the work of Martha Graham and other contemporary forms — its context remains intensely local.

“Almost every Israeli dance company has a political work in its repertoire,” he said, communicating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through movement, restriction of movement, pain, collective strength — all of which, Baum said, are less metaphor than they are an artistic expression of daily life.

“During this turbulent socio-political situation in Israel, it is more important than ever for artists to express their voices — even if it is without words.”

“Maya Plisetskaya: The Jewish Ballerina and the Stalinist Regime” with Guy Baum, 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 8 at Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Free.