Asaf Messerer in the role of Basil in the 1928 Bolshoi production of Don Quixote. (Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

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Messerer Family

Russian family of dancers and actors. Asaf Messerer (1903–1992) studied privately with Mikhail Mordkin in 1919 in Moscow and was later singled out by Aleksandr Gorsky, who placed him in an experimental class at the Bolshoi Ballet School (from which Messerer graduated in 1921). He then joined the ballet as a principal dancer.

For the next 33 years, Messerer performed leading roles in Swan Lake, Don Quixote, La Fille Mal Gardeé, Coppélia, and Petrouchka, demonstrating technical mastery and artistic versatility. In 1929 Sulamith Messerer, his younger sister (1908–2004), became his partner after he persuaded her to leave sports (she was a champion swimmer). In 1932–1933 Asaf and Sulamith were the first dancers to present Soviet ballet in the West, performing in Latvia, Sweden, Denmark, France, and Germany. The highlight of their program was The Football [i.e., Soccer] Player, which Asaf had choreographed.

Azary Messerer (1887–1937), Asaf’s older brother, was a leading stage actor in Moscow’s Second Studio. Two other sisters were also prominent performers: Elizaveta Messerer (1906–1963), a stage actress in Moscow; and Rakhil Messerer-Plisetskaya (1902–1993), a star of early Soviet film. Rakhil’s husband, Mikhail Plisetski, a Soviet diplomat, was arrested in 1938 and later shot, while Rakhil and her infant son Azari, the future dancer and choreographer, were sent to a prison camp for wives of “enemies of the people.” Sulamith Messerer raised Rakhil’s daughter, who became the prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya.

Maya Plisetskaya in the role of Odile, with Nikolai Fadayechev in the Bolshoi Ballet production of Swan Lake, ca. 1947. (Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

Asaf Messerer produced several classical ballets for the Bolshoi, including versions of Swan Lake (1937) and The Sleeping Beauty (1936). He created new ballets, too, the most successful of which was Ballet Class. Some of his concert numbers—Vernal Waters, for example—are frequently performed in international festivals. Messerer also choreographed dances for dramatic productions, collaborating closely with Vsevolod Meerhold.

During World War II, Messerer was artistic director of the Bolshoi, which had been evacuated to Kuybyishev (now Samara). In future years, he led the Bolshoi on tours abroad, including to Japan in 1980, at which time Sulamith and her son Mikhail defected to the West. After their defection, mother and son taught in the United States, England, Japan, and Israel. Madame Messerer, as she was called after she received an Order of British Empire, taught most of the great dancers of the world during her long career. She was on staff of the London Royal Ballet, where her son continues to teach since her death. They followed in part the method of teaching developed by Asaf Messerer, who described it in the book Uroki klassicheskogo tantsa (Classes in Classical Dance; 1967), a text that was translated into several languages. Both Asaf and Sulamith were named People’s Artists of the USSR and were awarded state prizes. Asaf’s son, Boris Messerer (1933– ), is a celebrated Russian artist and theater designer.

Suggested Reading

Slava Len et al., Boris Messerer: Masterskaia na Povarskoi (Rostov-on-Don, Rus., 1994); Asaf Messerer, Classes in Classical Ballet, trans. Oleg Briansky (Moscow and Garden City, N.Y., 1975); Asaf Messerer, Tanets, mysl’, vremia (Moscow, 1979); Elizaveta Mikhailovna Messerer and Naum Borisovich Leikin, Azarii Mikhailovich Azarin (Moscow, 1972); Maya Plisetskaya, I, Maya Plisetskaya, trans. Antonina Bouis (New Haven and London, 2001).