A Touch of Class: Master Teacher Azari Plissetski Shares His Vision of Working through the Basics

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A gentle "Shall we begin?" quietly signals the start of Azari Plissetski's latest teaching adventure. Warm September light floods Studio A at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan as an elite group of invited dancers shuffles to attention at the barre. They are part of a workshop initiated by Mikhail Baryshnikov intended to foster a dialogue about classical ballet training. But many of the dancers have never heard of the soft-spoken gentleman whom Baryshnikov describes as one of the finest classical ballet teachers working today. In fact, Plissetski is a living link between the earliest years of the Russian school and some of the world's most exciting classical dancers.

Plissetski's relative obscurity is surprising given his family ties to several of ballet's most visible and influential figures. Indeed, if there is royalty in the realm of classical ballet instruction, then 69-year-old, Bolshoi-trained Plissetski is its reigning monarch. His teachers, Nikolai Tarassov and Alexei Varlamov, were direct links to the traditions of Russia's Imperial Ballet School, and Plissetski's uncle, Asaf Messerer (also one of Plissetski's teachers), wrote Classes in Classical Ballet, a comprehensive study of ballet technique that is still in use today. Plissetski's aunt was the indomitable Sulamith Messerer, who, in addition to burning her way through the Bolshoi's most physically challenging roles, held the Soviet swimming record for the 100-meter crawl from 1927 to 1930. Alexander Plissetski, a brother, also danced with the Bolshoi. But the most brilliant jewel of this extraordinary family is Plissetski's sister, the incomparable ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, whom Sulamith Messerer adopted as a child and coached to stardom.

Gentle-eyed and modest, Plissetski's casual demeanor doesn't suggest such an illustrious pedigree. Indeed, as we sit down to talk at BAG, Plissetski seems eager as a young boy to tell his story. "When you teach, you learn--the rule of my life," he offers, and a bemused smile brightens his round face. It's a disarming humility, and one all the more impressive as the facts roll out.

Rescued as a baby from the Soviet Gulag, Plissetski followed family tradition and entered the Bolshoi school at the age of 10. As a member of the 230-strong Bolshoi Ballet, he eventually established himself as a desirable partner and dancer of great elegance. In 1961 Alicia Alonso, prima ballerina and founder of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, selected him to be her primary partner, and Plissetski quickly accepted the chance to jump into the unknown.

"I'd never been outside Russia, so it was an adventure," he says cheerfully. "Besides," he adds a bit more soberly, "the contract was for just one year." One year stretched to 10, and he toured the world, receiving international attention as Alonso's partner. "Working with Alicia was a great experience for me--as a partner, as a dancer, as an interpreter," says Plissetski. He cites his years in Cuba as the most important of his life.

In the 1960s Fidel Castro was intent on building Cuba into a force to be reckoned with, and a world-class ballet company was part of the plan. Alonso, a personal friend of Castro's, was charged with creating a ballet school in the Soviet style. She asked Plissetski to help her husband, Fernando Alonso, set it up. Plissetski had taught in Moscow as a young dancer, substituting occasionally for his uncle Asaf, but had never organized a school. The two men selected girls with suitable physique, but had to recruit boys from the local orphanage, as ballet didn't fit the Cuban idea of machismo.

"We just asked them if they wanted to dance, and they said, yes, yes! We didn't tell them it was ballet," Plissetski recalls. "It was a university of experience. I formed new dancers, but I was formed by teaching them," he says, understating what must have been a Herculean task of molding raw recruits into danseur nobles. Plissetski credits Fernando Alonso with establishing the clean lines of the Cuban National Ballet School. …