If one person is talented, she is usually talented in every way. The justice of this verity was proved by the life of Soulamif Messerer, a famous ballet dancer, prima of Bolshoi theatre. At the same time she was many times swimming’s champion of Soviet Union in crawl stroke. And more, she gave a lucky pass to Big Art to incomparable Maya Plisetskaya…
Text: Farid DOSAEV
It is very interesting and funny to look at hundred-years-old sports’ photos. It was a strange mixture of naivety and solemnity: wrestlers with twisted up moustaches, cyclists with boaters and ties, swimmers in striped swimsuits… At that time sportsmen were not named stars, they never received super fees, and the records of this period could provoke merely an indulgent smile from today’s supporters. The only one think had any doubt: those champions were very uncommon persons, usually combining many talents. It was the case of Soulamif Messerer. She was born in Moscow, on the corner of Rozhdestvensky boulevard and Big Loubianka street, in a dentist’ family. There were ten children and each received a Bible’s name. The first in the family was Assaf, an older brother of Soulamif, who “was sick” with classic dance. Namely, it was Assaf, who brought her in Bolshoi theatre to see a ballet. At once a love to dance has flamed in the heart of a young girl. And soon she became a schoolgirl of ballet college of Bolshoi. It would seem, that it was her love forever… But in 1926 it was happened unexpected. Being on the rest, she saw a young man in the sea. Ah, so fast and nicely he was swimming, it was absolutely different from a primitive overarm, which all boys at this time were demonstrating on Moscow’s ponds. It was a real crawl stroke! The seeing had so strongly surprised an eighteenth girl, that coming back in Moscow, she went immediately to a swimming section of Water sports’ station “Strelka” on Moskva-river.
Soulamif Mikchailovna remembered her first meeting with a couch Alexandre Grigorenko: “He take at me a sceptic glance. What is a puny little girl without any muscles, but she also want to swim in crawl, one of the most difficult strokes… It’s impossible at once to swim in crawl, my dear girl…” I replayed him: ”But you will show me.” Grigorenko laughed, but then he showed me: arms work just like that, legs move just so, a breath in with an arm stroke, a breath out in the water. After that I dived in the water and I was rather correctly swimming in crawl. Grigorenko was completely choked: “Have you ever swam with this stroke?” – “Оh, no, but yow showed me…”
But after knowing that I was a ballerina, my instructor realised, from where I had this movements’ coordination and a power of trained muscles. In three weeks l was already listed to completions with a participation of all best Moscow’s swimmers. And, can you imagine, this “little puny ballerina”, to her complete surprise, finished the first in the race! At the end of the season I became a champion of Moscow in 100 m crawl, and next year – of Soviet Union! And I never gave this title to anybody during four years running…”
Attractive perspectives ware opened for young Messerer in swimming. But it was not possible to combine swim trainings on water’s surface and dance exercises on bar. Her couches, as well as her pedagogues were displeased. Ballet and swimming needed her presence entirely, without any rest. As it was difficult to refuse from something, she was forced to do her choice, immediate and irrevocable. And the art finally won. It was the beginning of her brilliant dancer’s career. Together with her brother Assaf she concurred a public of Bolshoi theatre, which were followed by successful tours on the scenes of many theatres all over the World.
What was a distinguished sign of the young dancer on scene? An exact interpretation of image, a perfect choreography, temperament and artistry. She demonstrated all those thinks in twenty spectacles. Many of them, especially “Flame of Paris”, were visited by Stalin. Soulamif with her brother became laureates of Stalin’s prize. But, as remembered her relatives, she was missing very much his beloved crawl and a hazard competition on water’s lines…
But in 1938 the black wing of repressions touched also Messerer’s family. Michael, the husband of her sister Rachel was executed, and Rachel herself was arrested and send to the camps. But it was an opportunity to Soulamif to show her skill to struggle till final victory, which she was always possessed. She succeed to obtain her sister’s transfer from the camp to a free settlement, and in Moscow she adopted her niece Maya, which was planned to send to an orphanage by Soviet authorities. Certainly, Maya, was going in for classic dance under supervision of her aunt. And some years after this slim girl was applaud with delight in many countries of the World. Yes, it was Maya Plisetskaya. Later Soulamif Mikchailovna staged to her niece a famous composition “Dying Swan”.
I had a chance to meet this incredible woman Soulamif Messserer many years after her swimming’s victories. At this time the sporting redaction of Soviet central television was preparing a special program “Bolshoi theatre and its champions”, because a lot of eminent artists of vocal and of choreography also possessed in their youth rather ponderable results in sport. But it was Soulamif Messerer, who surpassed all her colleagues in sporting achievements.
When I called Soulamif Mikchailovna, she answered herself a phone. I demanded her to give an interview to Soviet television. She asked again: “An interview? About what, please?” And after a second’s pause added: “I can even swim, if you want…” It was a good luck! Later we went to Moscow’s Olympic Centre of Water Sports at Ibraguimova street. Soulamif Mikchailovna, not loosed the slenderness of prima ballerina, remembered her victories on water’s lines in distant pass of 1930th, dived dashingly from starting block and swim in her preferable crawl stroke. Her technic was really perfect!
This filming was organized on the eve of 60th anniversary of famous ballet dancer. Among a lot of other congratulations Soulamif Mikchailovna received also the honorary Diploma of USSR Swimming Federation. On this day our renowned ballet dancer was decorated by Galina Prozumenschikova, the first Soviet Olympic champion in swimming.
Today, as before, ballet’s connoisseurs, as well all her disciples are kindly remembering Soulamif Mikchailovna (by the way, her son Mickhail is now one of the most well-known and demanded ballet-masters in the World). And I remember the solemn ceremony of “Soul of Dance” Prizes’ distribution. How recklessly and perfectly Soulamif Mikchailovna was dancing the French cancan, and she was already a 90-years-old woman! She died in June 2004 in the age of 95 years. The memory about this glorious ballet dancer and many times USSR swimming’s champion will live still for a long time…”
English version: Serge Wodes/Photos: archives of Mr. Swimy