From the beginning, Maya was a different kind of ballerina. She spent very short time in the corps de ballet after graduation and was quickly named a soloist. Her bright red hair and striking looks made her a glamorous figure on and off the stage. Her long arms had a fluidity that to this day remains unmatched; her interpretation of The Dying Swan, a short showcase piece made famous by Anna Pavlova, became Maya's calling card. Maya was known for the height of her jumps, her extremely flexible back, the technical strength of her dancing, and her charisma. She excelled both in adagio and allegro, which is very unusual in dancers.
Despite her acclaim, Maya was not treated well by the Bolshoi management. She was Jewish in an anti-Semitic climate, her family had been purged during the Stalinist era and her personality was defiant, so she was not allowed to tour outside the country for six years after joining the Bolshoi. It wasn't until 1959 that Nikita Khrushchev permitted her to travel abroad, and Plisetskaya could tour internationally. Her ability changed the world of ballet, setting a higher standard for ballerinas both in terms of technical brilliance and dramatic presence.
Maya's most acclaimed roles included Odette-Odile in Swan Lake (1947) and Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (1961). In 1958, she was honoured with the title of the People's Artist of the USSR and married the young composer Rodion Shchedrin, in whose subsequent fame she shared.
After Galina Ulanova left the stage in 1960, Maya Plisetskaya was proclaimed the prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi Theatre. In the Soviet screen version of Anna Karenina, she played Princess Tverskaya. In 1971, her husband the composer Rodion Shchedrin wrote a ballet on the same subject, where she would play the leading role. Anna Karenina was also her first attempt at choreography. Other choreographers who created ballets for her include Yury Grigorovich,Roland Petit, Alberto Alonso, and Maurice Béjart with "Isadora".
In the 1980s, Plisetskaya and Shchedrin spent much time abroad, where she worked as the artistic director of the Rome Opera Ballet in 1984–5, then the Spanish National Ballet of Madridfrom 1987–9. At the age of 65, she finally retired from the Bolshoi as a soloist. On her 70th birthday, she debuted in Béjart's piece choreographed for her and entitled "Ave Maya". Since 1994, she has been presiding over the annual international ballet competitions called Maya. In 1996 she was named President of the Imperial Russian Ballet.
She was forced to be member of the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public by being threatened with having her passport revoked. When she traveled abroad in the 1960s, the Soviet secret police requested that she encourage the interest of Robert F. Kennedy, which she declined.
On her 80th birthday, the Financial Times summed up current opinion about Maya in the following words: "She was, and still is, a star, ballet's monstre sacre, the final statement about theatrical glamour, a flaring, flaming beacon in a world of dimly twinkling talents, a beauty in the world of prettiness." The following year, Emperor Akihito presented to her the Praemium Imperiale, informally considered a Nobel Prize for Art. Later in life while touring in the United States she joined the fight for women's rights.