Born in Moscow on February 1, 1939, the daughter of an engineer (her father) and a journalist and editor, Ms. Ekaterina Maksimova became one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century, loved by the world over.
Part of her fame rested on the fact that she was one half of a glamorous partnership, on- and off-stage, with Vladimir Vassiliev who was arguably the most exciting male dancer of the Soviet regime and the USSR's answer to the departed Rudolf Nureyev. Together, Maksimova and Vassiliev were ballet's most romantic couple. Yet, just as Vassiliev forged his own career as choreographer and director, Maksimova also found enormous, independent success right from the start of her career.
Elfin and agile, she was nicknamed "the miraculous little elf" and "the baby of the Bolshoi Theatre" on the company's American tours, yet she combined her physical virtuosity with an expressive gift equal to that of the best in spoken drama. Her range was remarkably wide, from the exuberant wit of Kitri in Don Quixote to the romantic spirituality of Giselle, from the strict classicism of Sleeping Beauty to Soviet epics and experimental works.
After graduating from Moscow State Academy of Choreography in 1958, she was accepted into the Bolshoi Ballet and there, only one year later, she created the leading role of the young, innocent Caterina in Yuri Grigorovich's Moscow production of The Stone Flower. Grigorovich was then emerging as a fresh, revolutionary voice in Soviet choreography, and later, as artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, he would go on to create many of his signature ballets and productions for Maksimova. She starred as Masha in his version of The Nutcracker (1966), Princess Aurora in his Sleeping Beauty (1973), and most memorably Phrygia, the wife of the titular slave-rebel in Spartacus (1968).
In 1959, Maksimova took part in her first American tour where, despite her junior status, she was enthusiastically singled out by the press. In 1960, after just two years in the company, she danced Giselle and was at that time the youngest dancer to take on this major classical role. Galina Ulanova, the greatest of all Soviet ballerinas, had just retired from the stage, and she coached Maksimova in the part. Maksimova thus became her first "student," the beginning of an enduring mentoring relationship.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Vassiliev turned increasingly towards choreography, creating many ballets for Maksimova and himself such as Icarus (1971/1976), Anyuta (1986), and Cinderella (1991). Anyuta was based on a short story by Chekhov and first shown as a television film. Eventually, the couple formed their own touring ensemble, returning to Moscow in 1995 when Vassiliev was named overall director of the Bolshoi Theatre, a post he held until 2000.
For someone with a wide smile and luminous eyes that reached far across the orchestra pit, Maksimova seemed an unlikely candidate for depression, but she suffered bouts throughout her life. To all who worked with her, she was known as Madam Nyet, because whenever she was first approached with a proposal, her initial reaction, thinking she couldn't succeed, was "No!"
After retiring, Maksimova became a coach at the distinguished RATI (the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts), as well as at the Kremlin Ballet, and, from 1998, at the Bolshoi Ballet.