The Dancing Life: Master Class
by Joan Acocella – The NewYorker
Plisetsky is an ordinary-looking sixty-nine-year-old man, with a bald head and a paunch. But the minute he took his position in front of the class his body changed. His spine elongated; his shoulders moved back; even his cheekbones seemed to rise. The drill he led was very hard, as a master class—also known as a classe de perfectionnement—is supposed to be. (Most of the students were professionals. David Hallberg and Veronika Part, both leading dancers at American Ballet Theatre, were there, humbly taking their lesson.) Many of the corrections he gave had to do with the most basic principles of ballet; above all, with how to initiate the movement—from the middle of the body, not from the extremities. One dancer was told to pick up her left buttock, as well as her right, before turning. The whole class was told to plié from the pelvis, not from the ankles, and to pirouette from both legs, not just from the back leg. This centering of movement is what makes ballet look “classical”—unified, harmonious, natural—but everybody has to be reminded of it constantly.
In addition to basics, Plisetsky worked on tiny details. He quoted his uncle Asaf Messerer, another celebrated teacher: “The most expressive part of the body of a dancer, it’s the hand.” He took the students carefully through the configuration of the fingers during a plié: one design, palms down, as they were going down, and another, palms up, as they were coming up. As is often the case with master teachers, Plisetsky performed the step more beautifully than any of his students. They looked on earnestly, and tried to copy him.
Plisetsky has spent most of his career outside Russia. He danced with the Bolshoi for six years, but then, in 1963, he was sent off to dance for his country’s new friend, Cuba. “Azari was very good-looking,” Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was translating for Plisetsky, said. “Also, very experienced partner,” something that Alicia Alonso, the director of the Cuban National Ballet, needed in order to continue her dancing career, for she was going blind. “He danced with her ten years, non-stop.” At the same time, he began teaching, and if, today, Cuban men are standouts in international ballet—virile but dignified, athletic but elegant—that is probably due in some measure to Plisetsky. Since Cuba, he has taught for other companies—his sister Maya’s troupe in Madrid, Roland Petit’s Ballet National de Marseille, Maurice Béjart’s Ballet Lausanne (where he is still working)—but he speaks of the Cubans with a special love. “Temperament, they have,” he said. “Dynamism.” They also have strong popular dance traditions, which beef up their ballet. He remembers teaching a step, the pas de basque, to a class of young boys in Havana. One boy was sure he could do it. Plisetsky got up from his chair to show what the boy did. His hips swung and swayed and did figure eights. It was a rumba, with a pas de basque hidden in it. “No one is so naturally gifted in dancing as the Cubans,” he said.
But how did he get to be a ballet teacher in the first place? Why was he accepted into the Bolshoi school, if the authorities had recently found it necessary to shoot his father and imprison his mother? “Well,” he said, “at that time Maya was starting to dance.” Then there was his uncle Asaf Messerer and his aunt Sulamith Messerer, both principal dancers with the Bolshoi. “So the names Messerer and Plisetsky become legal. They realize we are artists.” He threw up his hands. “Oops, sorry!”
by Joan Acocella – The NewYorker
October 16, 2006
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times.