Maya Plisetskaya, one of the foremost ballerinas of the 20st century, who was identified with the Bolshoi Ballet of her native Russia, but whose theatrical fire, magnetic presence and physical virtuosity communicated wordlessly with audiences around the world, died May 2 in Munich. She was 89.
Her death was confirmed to the TASS news agency by Vladimir Ourin, the general director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. Ourin said he was told by the dancer’s husband, Rodion Schedrin, that she died of a heart attack.
Strong-willed, iconoclastic and devoted to art above all else, Plisetskaya seemed just the sort who would chafe under the stultifying and seemingly capricious orthodoxy of the Soviet governments under which she lived for much of her nearly 50-year career.
Though she became prima ballerina of the world-famed Bolshoi, performing the principal roles in “Swan Lake” and other classic ballets, she was viewed with suspicion in the Soviet Union, which had treated her parents with harsh severity.
Yet Plisetskaya did not turn her back on her homeland. She mystified and bewildered her admirers around the world who could not reconcile her artistry with her refusal to join so many of her fellow stars in defecting. Rudolf Nureyev left, and so did Mikhail Baryshnikov. But not her.
Almost paradoxically, that refusal may have been one more aspect of her independence, her desire to pave her own path. For Plisetskaya, her artistic home was the Bolshoi in which she was trained and rose to glory. It was both theater and symbol, and its attractions could overcome the entreaties of friends beyond the Iron Curtain.
In a review of her 2001 memoir, “I, Maya Plisetskaya” Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman noted that the artist achieved a “kind of seething acceptance” of a system that strait-jacketed her but to which her genius seemed indissolubly bound.
Although she was often treated shabbily and sometimes humiliated, Plisetskaya became a showpiece of the Soviet system, placed on display before visiting foreigners to show them the cultural splendors of communism.
Aficionados of ballet admired the emotional depth and ineffable nuance that Plisetskaya brought to such roles as Kitri in “Don Quixote,” Zarema in “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai” or “The Dying Swan” or, in what she said was her favorite role, Carmen in the “Carmen Suite,” with a musical score by her husband.
After Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev lifted a travel ban in 1959, Plisetskaya had opportunities to travel abroad, including triumphant appearances in the United States.
By one account, Khrushchev expressed relief when she returned. “You didn’t let me down,” he reportedly told her.
Maya Mikhaylovna Plisetskaya was born Nov. 20, 1925, in Moscow, into a family accomplished in the arts. Her mother was an actress in silent films, and an uncle was a dancer and choreographer in the Bolshoi.
After witnessing her first theatrical production at the age of 4, Plisetskaya came home and played all the parts for her family.
From an early age, she had a rebellious spirit, which made her a poor member of a collective society. On trips with other children, she noted, “we’d be going somewhere on the bus, singing a song and I never joined in.”
She was 11 when her father was seized as “an enemy of the people.” He was later shot. Her mother was sent away to a prison camp for three years, and Plisetskaya was taken in by an aunt. She also faced ostracism because of her Jewish heritage.
Plisetskaya took refuge in the formal discipline of ballet. During World War II, her family fled Moscow before the advance of the Germans, but she went back, unwilling to give up the future she saw for herself in ballet.
Her overwhelming talent propelled her onto the Bolshoi stage in 1943. She began to win leading roles and a growing reputation for combining physical power with an intuitive ability to express the music through her motion.
Audiences were drawn to her striking red hair and the breathtaking height of her jumps. Yet she was often denied privileges that were granted to other artists.
Eventually, the Soviet system relented in its treatment of Plisetskaya. Foreign choreographers created works for her, which she performed not only beyond her country’s borders but at the Bolshoi as well. She held positions with ballet companies in many countries, including as artistic director of the Rome Opera Ballet and the Spanish National Ballet in the 1980s.
She appeared in films, cast for her dramatic powers, including one role as Anna Karenina, the tragic heroine of the Leo Tolstoy novel. During a visit to the White House in 1962, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy reportedly told Plisetskaya, “You are Anna.”
Then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sent her roses.
In 1987, when she was 61, Plisetskaya performed with Russian emigres Nureyev and Baryshnikov during a gala performance with the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York.
She retired from the Bolshoi at 65 but continued to give occasional performances well into her 70s.
Plisteskaya was married in 1958 to composer Rodion Shchedrin, who survives her. They had no children.
“It’s very simple,” she said in a 1988 interview with The Post. Children demanded much attention, and childbirth changes a woman’s figure. “Never have I seen a ballerina who has become any better” after bearing a child, she said.
She was pleased with the emotional depths she stirred in the United States, saying, “People have come to me in tears.”
She added, “That’s how I would like to be remembered.”