How Leonid Yakobson Danced Past Soviet Censorship

Choreographer Leonid Yakobson knew how to fight. When he was a teenager in Petrograd, during the freezing anarchy that followed the Russian Revolution, he acquired a set of iron “knuckles” so that he could beat the thugs who wanted to steal his younger brothers’ winter coats. When he was in his late 60s, Yakobson was still throwing punches — mixing it up with the Soviet bureaucrats who were determined to censor and, if possible, destroy his ballets.

Dance scholar Janice Ross referees this lifelong boxing match in “Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia,” her critical study of the indomitable Soviet ballet master. Ross describes, for instance, Yakobson’s reaction when officials charged with evaluating his series of duets based on Auguste Rodin sculptures balked at showing such erotic dances to the public. Sofia Golovkina, director of the Bolshoi Ballet school, claimed to be so embarrassed by the performers’ skin-tight costumes, she had to close her eyes.

“And now shut your mouth,” Yakobson said exploding in anger. “If you didn’t see anything, how can you judge?” The choreographer went on to insult a bureaucrat who had asked how anyone could tell whether nude dancers were capitalists or communists. Yakobson answered derisively that without his clothes, the portly committee member could be mistaken for a capitalist himself.

Yakobson’s wife and loyal assistant, Irina Yakobson, had long ago thrown her husband’s old iron “knuckles” into the Fontanka River, fearing the reaction if authorities discovered a Jew carrying a weapon. But there was no way to control his anger; and at the aforementioned meeting, Yakobson was fighting for what would prove to be the last best opportunity of his life. After years of struggle, he had received permission to form his own dance company in Leningrad, a chamber-sized troupe called the Choreographic Miniatures. Granting him this platform was an unheard-of concession behind the Iron Curtain in 1970. Yet the authorities knew that the victory would be hollow if they forced Yakobson to revise his choreography beyond recognition, or forbade him to present important works. They could also strangle the company in its infancy by denying the dancers permission to tour.

Soviet officialdom was notoriously prudish. According to Ross, the Hermitage Museum could not display the sexy Rodin statues that had inspired Yakobson’s dances. A Soviet critic had labeled “degenerate and sterile” the music by Claude Debussy that accompanied the ballet “The Kiss.” However, it wasn’t the impressionistic score that most offended Yakobson’s tormentors, and it wasn’t just his sensual imagination that posed a threat. In a world where obtuse government functionaries made aesthetic decisions, this artist insisted on creating a new vocabulary for dance, rejecting the familiar tropes of classical ballet and replacing collective ideals with a personal vision. His approach resembled American modern dance. And from a Soviet official’s point of view, these things were worse than the gentle awakening of “The Kiss” or the sexual violence of “Minotaur and Nymph.”

Hours before the dancers were scheduled to go onstage, the officials pronounced their sentence. No one under 16 would be admitted to the theater, but Leningrad audiences with a taste for debauchery would be allowed to watch, with pulses racing, as the Choreographic Miniatures troupe performed the “Rodin” cycle, which Yakobson had provocatively expanded.

Of course, there was a catch: The audience could see “Rodin,” but they would not be allowed to see a ballet called “Wedding Cortège.” It had been called “Jewish Wedding,” until censors demanded a name change. The pessimism of its ending flouted Soviet artistic convention, rejecting the tone of moral uplift that Socialist art supposedly required.

In Ross’s account, it becomes clear that what Soviet officials objected to was not simply the ballet’s ending, in which an impoverished schlemiel despairs when his true love’s parents arrange for her to marry a wealthy man.

But what concerned the officials even more was the ballet’s affirmation of a Jewish identity separating the dancers’ bodies from the body politic in which citizens of the USSR were meant to submerge their differences. Ross draws a connection between the anti-hero’s gestures in this ballet — collecting his tears in cupped hands and drinking them — and tasting salt water at the Passover Seder. Changing the title wasn’t enough, and that afternoon, ushers painstakingly crossed out the item “Wedding Cortège” in each printed program.

Yakobson was not an observant Jew, yet canceling the performance of this ballet was an attack on his very being.

This was hardly the first time Yakobson had been persecuted for being Jewish. Soon after he was awarded the Stalin Prize, in 1951, for his part in creating the ballet “Shurale,” an article in the internal broadsheet of the Kirov Theater denounced the presence of a “cosmopolitan” choreographer in their midst. The coded word meant “Jew,” and Yakobson was under attack. He was suppressed, and for a time he could work only anonymously, setting dances for a folkloric troupe in Kishinev, Moldova. Fatefully, though, this exile permitted him to study the dances and customs of the Jewish community in Kishinev. This research would supply Yakobson with material for his dances on Jewish themes, as well as for pieces like his “Vienna Waltz,” where he hid Jewish folk material in plain sight.

According to Ross, even dances that did not concern themselves with Jewish life might become imbued with a Jewish sensibility. She cites “Vestris,” a solo that Yakobson created for the young Mikhail Baryshnikov, in which Baryshnikov portrayed Auguste Vestris, the legendary star of the Paris Opera. According to Ross, grotesque attitudes in this solo reflect the influence of Yiddish actor and director Solomon Mikhoels, particularly in his celebrated performance as King Lear.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had Mikhoels assassinated during a bloody, anti-Semitic campaign, while those members of his Yiddish theater who survived were sent to labor camps where, movingly, Yakobson’s dancers would encounter them on tour many years later.

We learn everything we need to know about anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, however, when Ross describes the more recent activities of the country’s infamous minister of culture, Yekaterina Furtseva. Furtseva was too busy to attend the theater. Despite Yakobson’s entreaties, she never laid eyes on his ballets. Yet she found time to assist in plotting the deportation of Jews to Spitsbergen, and she reduced the quota of Jewish students allowed to matriculate at Soviet universities. When Yakobson received an invitation to choreograph an opera that Yuri Lyubimov was directing at Teatro alla Scala, in Milan, Furtseva denied the choreographer permission to travel abroad. The Italian presenters insisted on having Yakobson, so Furtseva eventually caved. Phoning Lyubimov in the middle of the night, she snarled, “Okay, take the Jew and go.”

Working under such hostile conditions, did Yakobson ever despair? Only once, perhaps. Ross describes him breaking down and sobbing in the dressing room of Bolshoi ballerina Maya Plisetskaya during the company’s North American tour in 1962. Strikingly, this moment of weakness resulted not from Yakobson’s struggles with Soviet bureaucracy, but from the failure of New York dance critics to appreciate his unconventional staging of the ballet “Spartacus,” which they panned. Ross attributes this debacle to the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the USSR as the Cuban Missile Crisis was about to unfold.

Otherwise, Yakobson appears stoic and resolute, supremely confident in his own talent, and even cheerful at moments that would have undone others. We read of the choreographer blithely rushing to attend a soccer match after the authorities canceled the premiere of his ballet “The Dragonfly.” Undeterred, he went on to create more dances — 180 in all, including major pieces inspired by the poetry of Alexander Blok and by the satire of Vladimir Mayakovsky. More daringly, in the Soviet context, the choreographer also fashioned dances of spare abstraction.

A man like Yakobson does not share confidences, and as Ross points out, in a totalitarian society it can be dangerous to have a past. Though the choreographer wrote extensively about his art, he saved intimacy for the ballets themselves, of which only a portion survive. In researching her book, Ross also had to cope with gaps in the historical record. Evidently, Soviet journalists and documentary filmmakers were censored, too, and Yakobson’s premieres sometimes took place in a vacuum of reportage or were met with tortuous, political criticism. Supportive colleagues, like ballet master Fyodor Lopukhov, wrote positive assessments of Yakobson’s work that they were afraid to publish. When Yakobson died, hundreds of mourners attended his funeral but Soviet newspapers did not run a formal obituary.

Readers of “Like a Bomb Going Off,” therefore, should not expect the chatty, biographical details they might otherwise find in a book about a 20th-century artist. We learn most about Yakobson through the interviews Ross conducted with his wife and colleagues, at least one of whom requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Instead of psychological insights, then, the author, who is a professor at Stanford University, offers detailed descriptions of the dances she has seen, and leverages her extensive scholarship. Ross organizes her book around intellectual topics, so expect to hear more about philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin and his theory of “heteroglossia” than you will about Yakobson’s family, and be prepared to consider the feminization of the Jewish male body in diasporic theater.

The conclusion to this poignant history is melancholy, as Ross explains that even the works Yakobson was allowed to complete now suffer from dance’s ephemerality. While accurately describing Yakobson’s personality, the title “Like a Bomb Going Off” is also wistful. Ross borrows it from Soviet critic Valeriy Zvezdochkin who claims that if Yakobson had been allowed to publish his polemical reflections on his art at the time he wrote them, these essays titled “Letters to Noverre” would have had an explosive effect. Through no fault of his own, Yakobson had a career filled with such might-have-beens. Even as a ghost, however, this courageous ballet master still packs a wallop.

Robert Johnson is a freelance dance writer.

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