Dancing up a storm

The life story of Russian choreographer Leonid Yakobson, who was willing to risk all to get his message across – in the draconian USSR, no less.

Leonid Yakobson in rehearsal in Leningrad in 1973 (photo credit: ANATOLY PRONIN)
Leonid Yakobson in rehearsal in Leningrad in 1973
(photo credit: ANATOLY PRONIN)
The art world is replete with weird and wonderful characters, egocentric types and artists with eccentricities that border on the certifiable. Most of all, true artists have to be courageous and to constantly venture into uncharted waters, challenging both themselves and the world around them.
Leonid Yakobson certainly fits the latter description, in more senses than one.
That comes across in no uncertain terms in Janice Ross’s gripping biography of the late Soviet ballet dancer and choreographer, which goes by the suitably no-nonsense title Like A Bomb Going Off.
Ross, a dance historian, is a professor who teaches in the dance department, and serves as director of the dance division at Stanford University in California.
Yakobson, who died in 1975 at the age of 71, appears to have been a single-minded man who was willing to risk all to get his artistic statement across. In the USSR – under such draconian leaders as Stalin and Brezhnev – that took some guts, and probably some bravado, too. While life in the Soviet Union was fraught with danger for anyone even close to the boundaries of what was considered unacceptable behavior, the definition of the latter could change overnight.
Yakobson’s situation was compounded by his ethnicity, and the fact that he created Jewish-themed choreography in the late 1940s when – under Stalin’s harsh regime – Jews were being outlawed as “rootless cosmopolitans” and “bourgeois nationalists.”
Like A Bomb Going Off is subtitled “Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia,” which perfectly spells out what the man was about. Yakobson clearly adopted a bulldozer philosophy of life, and was willing to literally risk life and limb in an effort to get his artistic message out there.
The cover photograph, for example, shows a powerfully built young Yakobson, stripped to the waist, proffering an oxymoronic aesthetic mix of physical bulk with a somewhat anguished facial expression.
I suggested to Ross that the young Soviet simply reeked of energy.
“Yes he does,” she concurs. “And he was very proud of his chest. He was a man with a very healthy ego.”
But, surely, egos only get you so far.
Faced with the omnipotent political hierarchy which could simply order the execution of anyone considered to be a dissenter, or have them exiled to Siberia, Yakobson must have worked, at times, under almost impossible conditions.
“He was certainly challenged throughout his life,” Ross notes. “He was not a man intimidated by power. He was doggedly determined to get his ballets out to the world, but he was not a political animal. He never became a refusenik. He never wanted to leave Russia.”
In fact, Yakobson had several opportunities to defect but steadfastly refused to abandon his homeland. He was a Russian through and through, and he clearly needed that cultural and social milieu in which to work.
He was a prolific artist, and Ross feels he never got his due, either in Soviet Russia or the West.
“He made 178 ballets in his lifetime, and only a small fraction ever got to the stage,” she notes. “There was censorship at various levels. He had to submit a libretto, and the idea for a ballet, before he was given permission to start working with dancers at the Kirov or the Bolshoi [dance companies].”
Yakobson’s every artistic step was monitored and scrutinized, and had to be rubber stamped, before he could progress to the next stage of the production continuum.
“Then there would be reviews during the rehearsal process, costumes would be looked at, the music too,” explains Ross.
But Yakobson seemed unbowed by the constant attention he attracted from the iron-fisted authorities. The Soviet regime, for example, considered nudity, or even the inference of unclad flesh, anathema to acceptable “purity of thought”; hence Yakobson’s idea of feeding off statues of nude figures was considered reprehensible.
“He did a controversial work based on Rodin’s sculptures that were locked in the Hermitage, forbidden from view because they were considered pornographic, and he made a whole sequence of miniatures, and they said you absolutely cannot use flesh-colored leotards, it’s pornographic. You need to put on Grecian tunics and sandals, so the reference will be classicism and antiquity.”
Sounds like Yakobson had his work cut out for him on all fronts. The creative process is challenging enough, without having to pander to authoritarian dictates that do not take artistic considerations into account.
“It was that kind of negotiation, back and forth, and he was just unrelenting. A small proportion [of Yakobson’s works] did get to the stage.”
Yakobson’s fortitude and his tenacious refusal not to allow any extraneous factors to stymie his creative aspirations were palpably clear to anyone who witnessed his productions.
“The title of the book comes from what Russians told me about the impact in the theater, when the curtain rose, of one of his ballets.
They said it was really like ‘a bomb going off.’” Yakobson’s position as a choreographer for high-profile companies was something of a double-edged sword.
“I think his problem was twofold,” Ross posits.
“One, he was working in the highest echelons where Soviet culture was produced – the Kirov and Bolshoi stage – and ballet was very valued by the Soviets, because it was a remnant of the aristocratic era. The Soviets saw ballet as the equivalent of cinema, as a way to message a largely illiterate proletariat.
They wanted all the Soviet ideals, the heroicized male, the utopian future that was just around the corner, to be the subject matter of ballet. Yakobson did not obey that.”
The stubborn Jewish choreographer was, it seems, thwarted at almost every step. His ambition to make waves outside the Communist Bloc was dealt a fatal blow when his landmark 1950s work, Spartacus, was aired in New York, when the Bolshoi went stateside in 1962. Unfortunately, that coincided with the height of the Cold War, and it seems American dance critics were not keen to praise anything from behind the Iron Curtain.
Like A Bomb Going Off is a detailed and moving account of a larger-than-life character who was faced with impossible odds and refused to knuckle under.