“THE LAURENCE OLIVIER OF THE BALLET”
“With the sun in his blood”
Maris Liepa was born on 27th July 1936 in Riga, and studied at the ballet school of the Latvian National Opera and then the Moscow Choreographic School. As a young dancer of extraordinary talent, he worked first in Riga and then at Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theatre, before being invited to the Bolshoi in 1960. During his many seasons with the Bolshoi, Liepa performed all the leading classical and modern roles. His performances in Le Corsaire, The Swan Lake, La Bayadere and Spartacus were particularly celebrated, and he was awarded the Lenin Prize for the role of Crassus in Spartacus.
The Paris Ballet Academy honoured him with both the Marius Petipa and the Nijinski Awards, and in 1971 named him Dancer of the Year. The Russian Government also awarded him the Stanislavsky Medal and the title of ‘People’s Artist of the Soviet Union’.
In the early 1960s, Liepa revived Mikhail Fokine’s La Spectre De La Rose, which was included the Bolshoi’s repertoire from 1967. In 1972, he danced Vronksy in Rodion Schedrin’s ballet Anna Karenina with the legendary Maia Plisetskaya. At the same time he worked with Boris Eifman’s company, where he danced Rogozhin in The Idiot.
Liepa taught at the Moscow Choreographic School from 1963, and while also appearing the classic Soviet films The Fourth, Bemby’s Youth and Lermontov as an actor.In the early 1980s he was Artistic Director of the Sofia Ballet, and in 1989 began plans for a Maris Liepa theatre with the Moscow Council. Tragically, his sudden death prevented this coming to fruition.
Liepa’s name is one that, in the ballet world, must be written in capital letters – a name that epitomizes the legendary golden age of the Bolshoi Ballet and its dizzying ascent to the summit of artistic achievement.
Liepa conquered the world’s leading theatres and won hearts wherever he went. He was a dancer, a teacher, a restorer of old ballets, a memoirist, a film actor and a father who managed to pass on his great love of dance to his children, Ilze and Andris. A strong, courageous, handsome and gifted man who adored ballet and could not imagine life without it. As a youth in his native Riga, he wrote in his diary: “I’ll become a fairy-tale prince and take the Bolshoi by storm!” And thus it was throughout his life – that of a bold dreamer who, through talent, effort and dedication, carved out for himself an exceptional career without the help of patrons or sponsors.
Maris Liepa’s rise to fame may be defined by one word – “overcome”. By overcoming professional setbacks, the inevitable blows of fate and even his own shortcomings, he got right to the top and became a world class star – one of the great names that invariably provokes strong, powerful reactions in other people, inspiring pride, delight, adoration and sometimes hatred. At the peak of his career, Liepa had an almost god-like status, not unlike Crassus at the opening of the ballet Spartacus, or the sun orbited by other planets and satellites. Of course there were other brilliant stars at the Bolshoi, but such was the radiance of his personality that he could not be eclipsed.
Liepa was also a man of great contrasts and emotional extremes. A sober stategist in relation to his career, he was also an impetuous dreamer. His analytical mind was often at odds with his passionate and impulsive heart – now getting the better of it, now submitting to it. He could be magnanimous and unapproachable, majestic and terrifying, generous and scathing. He was an aesthete who adored luxury and beautiful things; a well-read intellectual who loved the arts.
Maris Liepa belonged to the world of myth and legend rather than to that of the modern hero, in the Soviet understanding of the term (although he did appear in that type of ballet too). He was a hero of stories about the great and the strong, who are passionate in all things, in good and evil, in victory and defeat. Heroes who do not yield or cave in, but who burn out in the rays of their own triumph. Every time he performed, Liepa would give all he had mercilessly burning himself out.
He was an unsurpassed master of duet dancing. On stage, it was only the ballerina whom he acknowledged as equal to himself. The perfect partner and chivalrous to the bones, he would gallantly cede first place to his partner, presenting her, admiring her. He performed unique duets with each of the great Bolshoi Ballerinas – Olga Lepeshinskaya, Maya Plisetskaya, Raisa Struchkova, Nina Timofeyeva and Marina Kondrateva – and was a sensitive chaperone to his younger partners – Ekaterina Maksimova, Nataliya Bessmertnova, Tatyana Golikova and Nina Semizorova. Always the gentleman, he knew how to present bunches of lilacs or violets to a lady or drink champagne from her slipper – and one can only guess at the eroticism of the sonnets he whispered as the Spirit of the Rose to the Young Girl in Le Spectre de la Rose.
For all his egotism (show us a premier who is not an egotist!), Liepa could be anxious and full of doubt, although he only revealed this vulnerability to his closest friends and confidants. He also possessed a gift rarely found in premier dancers – the ability to see himself at one remove, to poke fun at his own greatness, and to provide ironic commentary on his own deficiencies. Although he took rehearsals very seriously, he would often defuse tension by joking, adopting the voice of a Swiss yodeller he knew, or working up a chance hole in his tights into an amusing story.
Maris Liepa dreamed of the impossible: he wanted to dance for a hundred years. Tragically, it was not to be; but perhaps this was for the best. It is hard to imagine this handsome, elegant man and unsurpassably superb dancer as a senior citizen, and indeed he could hardly have lived without the stage, without the ballet. And in some ways, he has achieved a kind of immortality: in films and in books, in memoirs, in photographs, paintings and sculpture, in his pupils and in the hearts of his fans. Above all he lives on in his children, Ilze and Andris Liepa, in the work of the Maris Liepa Foundation which they set up, and in the gala-concerts in Riga, Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Paris, London. Maris Liepa had a passionate urge to dance and he continues to dance now and for all time!