The Soviets’ Cold War Choreographer - Leonid Yakobson

To create modern art in a classical mode is to face forward and backward at once, yoked to the past while inching toward the future. Only a fool or a genius would attempt it. So I had heard of the Soviet ballet choreographer Leonid Yakobson, whose modernist advances took place on hostile home territory. I had seen Vestris, the solo he created for a young Mikhail Baryshnikov that compressed an early ballet master’s mercurial life into a few minutes; it was the only contemporary work the superstar brought with him when he defected in 1974. I knew that the best dancers in Leningrad and Moscow had deemed the choreographer a God-given genius and a rebel to boot.

But whom did these artists, trapped behind the Iron Curtain, have to compare him with? Their praise could easily be dismissed as nationalist hype. After all, the standard American view is that the Soviet vanguard of ballet barely outlived Lenin. The ferment was in Paris, where the young Russian émigré George Balanchine collaborated with Stravinsky on the groundbreaking Apollo for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Then the action traveled west, with Balanchine. Thanks to him and his New York City Ballet, angular, plotless, modernist works replaced silly story ballets as the art form’s pride. Without Balanchine, the thinking goes, ballet would have buried itself in the past—and indeed, since the master’s death, in 1983, it has struggled to chart a future.

In Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia, Janice Ross soundly rejects this self-congratulatory and ultimately self-defeating account. A dance scholar at Stanford, she delivers on her claim that “during the initial years of the Cold War, the West did not have an exclusive purchase on experimentation in dance.” The book’s timing could not be better: for the past decade or so, the Russians have been rehabilitating works from the Stalinist era that brilliantly debunk the notion that Soviet ballet slept out the 20th century. And Yakobson is the ideal figure on whom to focus a corrected and expanded ballet history. Other choreographers also experimented fruitfully and were periodically squashed by the state, and their work might have been even better. But the Leningrad Jew who was raised with the revolution, and who died before its whole edifice collapsed, is the peerless Balanchine’s perfect complement—the yin to his yang. Enlarging the parameters of ballet that Balanchine laid out, Yakobson’s example justifies the ecumenical spirit spurring on the art form today.

Both Yakobson and Balanchine were formalists. Both understood choreography in essentially modernist terms—as a process of distillation, or “abstraction,” as it is more commonly known. But Balanchine began with the danse d’école, the movement lexicon inherited from the French court, while Yakobson started with the world, even if that meant setting the women’s pointe shoes aside and abandoning the standard turnout of the leg. Russian Orthodox to the end, Balanchine often presented the classical idiom as a veil through which to glimpse the metaphysical. The secular Yakobson saw ballet as a chance to illuminate our irrepressible natures and the eccentricities they breed. For an artist living through the most-repressive years of the Soviet regime, ballet’s penchant for idealization held no appeal: it reeked of ideological obfuscation. Feisty in temperament and fearless on principle, Yakobson homed in on what the Marxist marching orders “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” left out: unaccountable want.

Leonid Yakobson was born in St. Petersburg in 1904, the same year—in fact, the same month—as Balanchine. He too left home early, not to become a ward of Theater Street, as Balanchine did, but simply to eat. With the civil war spreading famine, his widowed mother sent her three sons to a children’s summer colony that promised food. But hunger and panic soon overtook the idyll, and caretakers fled. The children wandered until the American Red Cross gathered them up to transport them to Vladivostok, on the Pacific Ocean. The summer stretched into years. When it was finally time to go home, the weary tribe traveled by sea—15,000 miles.

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