Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Honor and Insults For Maya Plisetskaya

St. Petersburg, one of the world's strongholds of classical ballet, finally has an international competition of its own. Named in honor of Maya Plisetskaya, the Bolshoi Ballet's living legend, the Maya Competition attracted 51 young dancers from 16 countries. From August 17 through 22, the stage of the Alexandrinsky Theater was the focus of attention for many ballet enthusiasts, including celebrities like poet Andrei Voznesensky, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, opera diva Galina Vishnevskaya, and Mayor Anatoly Sobchak as the ubiquitous president of the organizing committee.

Plisetskaya herself, with an elegance and grace remarkable for her age, came back from voluntary exile in western Europe to preside over the panel of judges. As a special tribute to the dancer, each of the contestants was required to perform a rendition of Plisetskaya's best known role, Carmen, in her composer husband Rodion Schedrin's ballet adaptation of George Bizet's opera.

The Bolshoi and the Mariinsky, imperiously convinced that they are Russian ballet, shunned the competition with an attitude that can best be characterized as a mix of arrogance and fear. The boycott reached its most absurd point when the companies threatened to fire their dancers who participated in the event. This stance, sadly, is nothing new, and in fact haunted Plisetskaya throughout the 50 years of her incredible dancing career. In spite of countless titles, awards and recognition she received, she was always a strange combination of prima and pariah in the highly conservative and intrigue-ridden realm of the Soviet ballet establishment.

If anything, the competition served as worthy compensation for the ageless star's tribulations. Along with the countless accolades at the festive opening and final ceremonies, it was announced that a newly discovered small planet was to be given the name Maya -- an honor not many living human beings can claim.

The next Maya Competition has already been scheduled at the Alexandrinsky for 1996, timed to coincide with the dancer's 70th birthday. The competition could prove the artistic breaking point in overcoming Russian ballet's rigorous conservatism -- something Plisetskaya herself tried to do and which may have accounted for her disfavor.

Breaking from classical tradition, no matter how suffocating its limitations might seem, is fraught with potential danger for Russian ballet. An isolated oasis of classical dance will disintegrate, and it may take decades to create an authentic Russian school for modern dance. Today there are already signs of waning interest in the West for companies like the Bolshoi and Mariinsky. There were few Russians among the Maya winners, and they are more likely to find permanent work, not in Russia, but with Western companies.