Some performances you never forget. One took place in January 1995 when the Kirov-trained Nikita Dolgushin brought a small group of dancers from St. Petersburg, Russia to the Palace of Fine Arts in a program of classic and contemporary choreography. It was an event both dispiriting and puzzling. Though beautifully trained, many of these dancers were quickly approaching the end of their performance careers. In his fifties, the long-limbed Dolgushin still bore the marks of the danseur noble he once had been. But he should no longer have attempted the challenges of the Sleeping Beauty Pas de Deux. And what on earth made him don fishnet stockings for some god-awful contemporary work? What I most remember, however, is the appalling condition of the women’s point shoes. Dirty, worn and mended over and over, they spoke volumes about the conditions in which these artists had to work.
But most of us—not that there were many at the San Francisco performance—hadn’t come to see remade Petipa but were drawn by the promise of seeing works by Leonid Yakobson. The renegade Soviet choreographer who had spent his whole career in Russia, continuously being harassed and pressured to adapt his work— when it was not outright banned—to what the cultural authorities considered appropriately reflective of the state of the nation.
Born in 1904, Yakobson died in 1975, having lived through the Bolshevik revolution, the opening of the cultural promises during the 1920s, the Stalinist repressions of the 1930’s, the Second World War and the gradual thawing of restrictions in the post-Khrushchev era. He was accused of being “formalist”, “cosmopolitan”, “bourgeois” and anti-socialist.
In 1990 San Francisco Ballet had performed Yakobson’s Rodin—coached by his widow Irina Yakobson, then on the staff of SFB. He had taken inspiration from five Auguste Rodin sculptures with the dancers initially seen in the sculptor’s poses. In choreography that was lushly fluid yet muscular, the lovers became alive before being re-incased into the marble. Throughout, I kept wondering why on earth anybody would make something akin to tableaux vivants out of Rodin lovers? Wasn’t everything that could be said already contained within the way Rodin had worked the stone?
So five years later, the second half of Dolgushin’s program offered a welcome opportunity to see more of Yakobson’s work. The selections from his Choreographic Miniatures, perhaps a dozen of them, consisted of short, chiseled portraits of a wide variety of characters and incidents. Some were satiric, many humorous but all had an appealing charm to them. In the fast-paced ‘Troika’ a male sled driver flirted with a trio of giddy girls in tow. The ‘Gossips’ presented five vividly gesturing babushkas sharing the latest news. ‘Viennese Waltz’ gave us the back and forth between two elegantly dressed would-be lovers. The choreography for these very different vignettes was succinct, clear and a little innocuous. But they did not offer an inkling of why this choreographer should have had such a difficult time making work and surviving inside the Soviet Union. What could have been so objectionable in these humorous and somewhat witty glances at life?
It was left to Janice Ross’ Like A Bomb Going Off (Yale University Press, 2015), her ambitious and fascinating biography and study of Yakobson’s life and career, to offer answers. This admirably researched and well-written book throws a sharply focused light on a truly extraordinary artist and courageous human being. It also convincingly provides the reader insights into what it means to be subject to the arbitrariness of a political system that uses art to cement ideology. While Like A Bomb remains focused on Yakobson, it offers just enough of a broader perspective of what other artists—Dmitri Shostakovich, Fyodor Lopukhov—had to live through. Many, of course, left Russia, Yakobson didn’t.
Yakobson’s becoming a dancer—he is four days younger than Balanchine who graduated from the Leningrad State Choreographic Institute Imperial Ballet School one year ahead of him—was almost serendipitous. As a child, Yakobson and his two younger brothers became part of the Petrograd Children’s Colony, an officially sanctioned program, which in 1918 moved several hundred children and their teachers to Siberia in the hope of sparing them from some of the ravages of the time. It’s where his interest in performing started. What should have been a summer of good food, fresh air and theatrical entertainments turned into a three-year odyssey taking the children around the globe. San Francisco and New York were two of the stopovers.
Back in Petrograd (now Leningrad), the young man happened to walk by a ballet studio and insisted on enrolling even though he was seventeen and had never seen a ballet. He was taken under the wings of ballet pedagogue Alexander Chekigrin, also a well- esteemed character dancer, and a good mentor for the aspiring choreographer. Yakobson had talent, determination and utter confidence in his abilities—qualities he drew on for the rest of his life. As the Ross indicates, he also had an explosive temperament.
Early in his choreographic career, the critic Yuriy Brodersen accused him of wanting “to replace ballet with pantomime”. But, Ross argues, Yakobson always believed in the power of Ballet and worked throughout his career to liberate it from its ossified traditions by developing a “classically based yet eclectic movement vocabulary” which might include pantomime, athletic and acrobatic movements, comedy and satire.
When Yakobson used sandals and bare-foot dancers, turned in and parallel positions, floor work and the broken ballet line, Ross writes, he enlarged Ballet’s expressive potential. In many ways, it seems that Yakobson, who worked in a dramatic and narrative vein, was not that far removed from the “drambalet,” the officially sanctioned Soviet-style genre that pushed socialist goals and emphasized the revolution’s achievements. What was unacceptable to the regime was Yakobson’s insistence on artistic autonomy and on narratives and characters with psychological truth to them. Though never overtly political, he threatened a system that was determined to use the arts for ideological purposes. He wanted characters on stage, not mouthpieces.
Ross sees Yakobson as an artist of resistance on two levels. Though committed to Ballet, he rethought it as a contemporary language; as a Jew he refused to reject his identity. He had great moral integrity that sustained him as a man and an artist who could not be silenced. Most remarkably, his passion for making dances never left him. Throughout the ups and downs of his career, Ross writes, Yakobson maintained “a deep focus on aesthetic objectives over political ones.” That’s what made him the artist he became.
No matter the obstacles thrown at him, Yakobson would not give up. He fought the cultural authorities with subterfuge—Ross calls it “hiding in plain sight”—and open defiance. When he didn’t have professional dancers, he worked with students. When he had no dancers, he wrote librettos for new ballets. When he was sent to the provinces he worked with what he found there.
One of his best known and popular works, the full-evening Shurale, he created in Kazan, in the Republic of Tatarstan in 1941. Delayed, in part because of the outbreak of World War II, it was performed, after many fought-over alterations in 1950, winning Yakobson the prestigious Stalin Prize. Yet a few weeks after being so honored, he found himself “relegated from celebrity to pariah.” He had been anonymously denounced as a “cosmopolitan”, a code work, Ross points out, that stood for being “Jewish.”
Since Yakobson was persona non grata for much of his career, many of his dances—over 130, primarily miniatures—lacked documentation in the form of photographs, films, and/or contemporary evaluations. The paucity of such information might have been a serious handicap for a scholar of less perspicacity.
But Ross proved an indefatigable researcher, unearthing little known official documents, tracking down contemporaries, finding relevant memoirs, letters and talking with dancers in Russia, Israel and the United States. These latter conversations proved to have urgency since many of these dancers are getting on in years.
A major contributor to this study proved to be the choreographer’s widow, Irina Yakobson, who made her private archives available to Ross. A former dancer herself, Ms. Yakobson’s own voice weaves in and out through Ross’ narrative. Now living in Israel, she is a fierce defender of her husband’s work and scathing in her indictment and contempt of the old Soviet system.
Drawing on contemporary theory and history, Ross pulled her voluminous research together into a coherent yet prismatic perspective of Yakobson’s work. She also has a fine eye, perhaps developed as the dance critic she once was, to pull information from scanty details—a blurry photograph, fragmentary memories, partial video—to evoke a dance as it was, or as she says, “might have been.” Her analysis of extant works, such as Jewish Wedding, Shurale and Spartacus is vivid and convincing.
Some of the governmental documentation Ross unearthed is fascinating. One of them is a prescription of what the new Soviet Ballet must include: a revolutionary theme, reality based stories, spectacle based on mass movements, it had to be full-evening length and accessible to ordinary people. Another enumerates the specific changes that the authorities tried to impose on Shurale. Some of them he skirted around, others he agreed to. These documents have a sense of unreality about them yet they make for chilling reading because of the power these bureaucrats wielded.
It’s one of the great ironies of Yakobson’s career that whenever he could show a work—often only once before the authorities shut him down—audiences were with him. They understood what he did as an offering for a “hope to those who dreamed of a better future.” When, for instance, he couldn’t get permission to show his Jewish Wedding in Leningrad for four years in a row, it being judged as “too ideological because of the Jewish question”, supporters arranged performances in Siberia where over 3,300 factory workers jammed into a local sports arena to see the work.
Ross’ account of Yakobson’s Spartacus, created and pushed through despite governmental disapproval, raised some questions in my mind. Highly popular with Moscow audiences, the Bolshoi brought it to New York in 1962 as part of a US-USSR cultural exchange. It was panned as an extravaganza reminiscent of silent movie spectacles. Ross goes into great detail on how Cold War animosities sabotaged Spartacus. I am sure that had something to do with it. But isn’t it also possible that American audiences, in thrall with Balanchine’s refined formalism, could not relate to ballet that so overtly embraced theatricality? Maurice Bejart, Roland Petit, and even some of John Cranko and John Neumeier’s works have received similarly dismissive evaluations.
Like A Bomb offers rich and valuable insights into the forces that shaped Yakobson’s artistry. Yet ultimately the works have to survive in the theater. With her exhaustive study, Ross has certainly opened the door to that possibility.
Like A Bomb Going Off is being published by Yale University Press