Sulamith Messerer (1908-2004)

Article excerpt

Sulamith Messerer became a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet at the age of 20 when she volunteered, without rehearsal, to stand in for the injured Ekaterina Geltser as Kitri in Don Quixote. Three years later, she and her brother Asaf, a dancer and choreographer, became the first Soviet dancers to perform in Western Europe, to rave reviews.

Apart from Kitri in Don Quixote, which was her favorite role (she danced it in besieged Moscow in 1941 to keep up the morale of the Russian troops), Sulamith was also known for her ebullient Zarema in The Fountain off Bakhchisarai, her vivacious Lise in La Fille mal gardee, and her heroic Jeanne in The Flames of Paris, the role for which she was awarded a Stalin's prize.

Sulamith was heroic in real life too. In the midst of Stalin's Great Terror, she undertook several journeys to a gulag in Kazakhstan and managed to rescue her sister Rakhil with her baby son Azari Plissetski (now a choreographer and teacher with Rudra Bejart Studio-School in Lausanne). While they were in exile, she raised Rakhil's daughter, Maya Plisetskaya, who became a prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi Ballet (see excerpt from I, Maya Plisetskaya, DM, October 2001). Sulamith demonstrated the same indomitable spirit in 1980 when, at the age of 71, she decided to defect to the West with her son Mikhail (a renowned teacher with The Royal Ballet).

Sulamith's teaching career spanned almost 70 years. In Russia, in the 1950s and 1960s, she took 11-year-old girls and mentored them through graduation. One year, Sulamith asked that her school do 17 performances of The Nutcracker just so that all of her students would get the chance to dance the role of Clara. …