Maya Plisetskaya, the prima ballerina who ran her own race

The era of Soviet ballet tours to Australia is only a memory, but that memory returned for me with the death of the Russian ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, on 2 May, aged 89.

Although she was hounded by the KGB and often prevented from travelling with the Bolshoi Ballet, Plisetskaya made her own rules and travelled in touring groups assembled by such entrepreneurs as Australia’s Michael Edgley.

The Edgley enterprise brought members of the Bolshoi Ballet to Australia from 1962 when they presented “Stars of the Bolshoi Ballet”, then in 1969, “40 Stars of the Bolshoi Ballet”.

Plisetskaya toured to Australia with a Bolshoi Ballet ensemble in 1970 and again in 1976.

In July 1976, The Australian Women’s Weekly published an article by Jeni Edgley (then the wife of Michael) who wrote of the logistics of bringing the Bolshoi troupe to Australia.

The preliminary contract for the tour, she wrote, was signed by Michael Edgley and Gosconcert in Moscow, nearly five years before the tour took place. Jeni described the meeting of Michael and herself at Plisetskaya’s apartment in Moscow and how she “took us into her cosy small living room crowded with souvenirs of her overseas trips”.

The Edgleys were given an impromptu performance of Bejart’s Bolero, the showpiece she danced in Australia in 1977.

Michael made many visits to Russia from the 1960s onwards, as did his colleague, Andrew Guild, who told me some years ago about his memories of Plisetskaya and the Bolshoi tours to Australia in the years of the Soviet Union.

“Maya was an exceptional person”, said Guild. “She had genuine power within the Soviet arts system. Remember she first became a sensation during the Stalin reign. She was one of Russia’s true stars and she could really do anything she wished.

“She disliked authority, she ran her own race, lived the way she wanted to and no one could stop her. She had a strong character evidenced both on and off stage.

“She didn’t like Gosconcert (the commercial arm of the Ministry of Culture) because they arranged the tours and Maya preferred to arrange her own.

“Maya, with Edgleys anyway, was always treated like the star she was and was given 5 star hotels where she would stay on her own”.

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Maya Plisetskaya with Michael Edgley, from The Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 July 1976

Maya Plisetskaya,1964, photo © Cecil Beaton

Maya Plisetskaya, curtain call, photographer unknown

Maya Plisetskaya and Yves St Laurent, 1971, photo © Alain Dejean