Ross’s Russian venture

A Stanford dance historian comes to Israel in a quest for information about a famous Jewish-Russian choreographer oppressed by the USSR.

Janice Ross 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Janice Ross 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It would not be stretching things too far to suggest that, for Dr. Janice Ross, the incredible story of the life and work of Leonid Jacobson has become a labor of love.
Fifteen years after she first started getting to grips with the Jacobson enigma, California-based dance historian Ross is now completing a fourmonth mini-sabbatical in Israel during which she taught at the Hebrew University’s Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, and undertook some painstaking and highly valuable research into the life of the Jewish dancer and choreographer who flew in the face of Soviet authority. Ross’s stay in this country was made possible via the Fulbright Institute student and lecturer exchange program.
In fact, all of Ross’s work on Jacobson is secondhand or more. The Soviet dance artist died in 1975, and Ross only heard about him a year earlier. But she has had a direct route to some rare and valuable material.
“His widow, Irina, lives half of the year in Haifa,” says Ross, who spends most of her working hours teaching at Stanford University in California, and also writes articles about dance for leading publications such as The New York Times. “Irina is 84 and, during my stay in Israel, it has been a good time to meet with her and go through all the archival video documents that she was able to take out of the Soviet Union with her.”
The latter, it appears, are few and far between. “Irina is the major source [on Jacobson] because one of the crimes of his life in the USSR was that it was forbidden to write about him for much of the time. His name couldn’t be printed in the papers and so she’s the walking archive.”
Well past pensionable age, Irina still works as a coach and teacher with the Hamburg Ballet company where she helps to keep her late husband’s story and repertory alive.
Ross’s first sighting of Jacobson’s presence in the dance world was enhanced by the work of a number of leading Soviet dancers who defected to the West. When Mikhail Baryshnikov managed to abscond from a Kirov Ballet tour of Canada in 1974, he offered the Western world two major assets: his unique technique and a work created by Jacobson for him called Vestris.
“No one in the West knew about Jacobson before that,” Ross continues.
“He was a modernist during the Stalin years. He was born in 1904 so his life tragically paralleled the worst years of this regime of terror, of Stalin. His crime was being a Jew and being an avantgarde artist, particularly in classical ballet.”
In 1979, when the name of Irina Jacobson appeared on the list of Jews trying to leave the USSR, Ross seized the opportunity to try to make direct contact with her, only to be thwarted. “I tried to get my Polish mother-in-law to write to Irina. She was the only person I knew who spoke Russian. She refused flatly because she said it was too dangerous.”
Six years later, Ross and Irina finally met. “In 1985, a friend teaching at San Francisco Ballet told me about this amazing Russian woman who had just started teaching at the school and the company class, and said she was the widow of a Russian choreographer. It was Irina, who had managed to get out of the Soviet Union after being a refusenik for three years.”
Prior to relocating to the States, Irina was a member of the Kirov Ballet.
It was extremely tough for Jacobson every time he tried to get a new work performed on stage.
“There would be a state review board and they would censor all sorts of movements and elements of Jacobson’s work,” explains Ross. “For instance, kneeling was forbidden because that was considered too submissive.” There were other motifs which the authorities considered to be unacceptable.
“There were certain supplicatory hand movements which were seen to be too Jewish.”
There was an abundance of the latter in a work created by Jacobson in 1970, years after Stalin died, when he was finally allowed to put together his own production company. Typically, Jacobson went for broke artistically, with a highly risky work called Jewish Wedding, which incorporates Jewish sentiments, themes, styles and artists. “The specific gesture and dance vocabulary Jacobson creates here is drawn from shtetl mannerisms and gestures blended with folk and classical dance steps,” says Ross. “The wedding the work depicts can be seen as being symbolic of Russia’s Jews forced into a marriage of social convention that demanded they turn their back on their true passion – their Jewish heritage.”
In fact, growing up in communist USSR, the Jacobsons had precious few opportunities to feed off their Jewish roots. In 1960, long before Jewish Wedding was in the pipeline, the couple visited the last remaining open synagogue in Leningrad to observe how Jews gestured when they conversed and prayed, as material for a future ballet.
Like many of the city’s Jews, Jacobson had never been inside a synagogue before the investigative foray. “Now his effort to make an artistic statement in the face of cultural repression had ironically prompted this discovery,” Ross observes.
Jacobson’s artistic imagination was further fired when he was admitted by a sympathetic curator to a forbidden room of the Hermitage Museum that contained paintings by Marc Chagall. Jewish Wedding includes several of Chagall’s motifs.
Ross happily notes that Jacobson and his work have finally been embraced in the country of his birth. “Last year the Bolshoi mounted his full-length Spartacus, and the Kirov is now doing his Shurale right now. His works are also taught at the Kirov school. They are realizing that these were critical decades of modernism that they lost.”
Ross has not devoted all her time here to mining for nuggets about Jacobson’s life and work. Her teaching duties at Stanford include some extramural activities with juvenile prison inmates not far from the sequestered surroundings of the college, and she has been looking into similar work in prisons here. She is also very interested in Jewish elements in dance, in addition to Jacobson’s contributions, and in the social aspects of the art form. During her time in Israel, she has worked with religious women.
“There is growing interest in secular dance in religious circles,” says Ross. “I have worked with Jewish women, including young mothers who have placed their young babies to one side and danced. I think it is very interesting to look at the way the body is represented in Judaism and the way the body is addressed here in certain segments of the religious Jewish population. Their embrace of dance is intriguing and seems to be a boom area right now.”
Ross now returns to California and to her ongoing work on her book on Jacobson, which began 15 years ago. The paucity of archival material means it is often an uphill struggle, but one that Ross is determined to bring to a full and successful conclusion.
“I hope to be able to submit the manuscript to Irina, and my stock answer when asked when the book will be ready is, ‘Two years after the manuscript is ready.’ I’m sticking to that.”