Magazine article The New Yorker

MASTER CLASS; THE DANCING LIFE; THE DANCING LIFE Series: 4/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

MASTER CLASS; THE DANCING LIFE; THE DANCING LIFE Series: 4/5

Article excerpt

In her autobiography, the great Bolshoi ballerina Maya Plisetskaya describes the morning in 1937 when the authorities came to arrest her father: "The whole house upside down. My mother, unkempt, pregnant with a big belly, weeping and clutching. . . . My father, white as snow, dressing with trembling hands." The mother gave birth soon afterward. Eight months later, she, too, was arrested. She and her baby were sent to the Gulag, where they spent three years. The mother is dead now. The father, too: he was shot shortly after his arrest. As for the baby, Azari Plisetsky, he grew up to be a famous ballet teacher. Last month, he walked quietly into a studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, on West Thirty-seventh Street, to give a master class.

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 plie 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 plie: one design, palms down, as they were going down, and another, palms up, as they were coming up. …

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