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I first saw a video of Maya Plisetskaya dancing when she died early last month. Though I grew up going to the ballet with some frequency, and took lessons for eight years, lately I’ve been bored by it. The gestures, generally speaking, do not move me. They feel overdone, maybe even out-of-date. Or it could just be that I haven’t been seeing the right ballets, or that my cheap, back-row seats haven’t allowed me the intimate view that a dance benefits from. So was my thinking when watching Plisetskaya on the screen, dancing The Dying Swan at age 61.
Plisetskaya, born in Moscow in 1925, danced for the Bolshoi Ballet during Stalinist rule, and continued to dance for the company through the 1980s. In light of Wendy Whelan’s recent retirement from the New York City Ballet, unwillingly, it seemed, at age 47, it’s still impressive and hopeful to see Plisetskaya dancing with such spirit in Tokyo in 1986.
The lighting of the Tokyo performance is notably low, drawing modest attention to Plisetskaya’s silvery, slender figure on the impenetrable black stage. Still, her rubbery arms ripple out like waves, as if boneless. Her legs sharply pick up off the floor, her neck gracefully elongating in place, as the light, nimble creature she’s embodied finds its way in the dark. Tchaikovsky’s wavering low notes build gracefully and painfully to a shrill before gradually descending again. As the music’s pace picks up, so do Plisetskaya’s feet. Panicking, she turns in circles, her arms flapping up and down. She gives into the floor, her arms now weakly fluttering and her head bowing to her knees. After being in her presence for only less than four minutes, I have the aching sense that a being so full with life has been lost.