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Like a Bomb Going Off

Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia

Janice Ross
Foreword by Lynn Garafola
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 536
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  • Book Info
    Like a Bomb Going Off
    Book Description:

    Everyone has heard of George Balanchine. Few outside Russia know of Leonid Yakobson, Balanchine's contemporary, who remained in Lenin's Russia and survived censorship during the darkest days of Stalin. Like Shostakovich, Yakobson suffered for his art and yet managed to create a singular body of revolutionary dances that spoke to the Soviet condition. His work was often considered so culturally explosive that it was described as "like a bomb going off."Based on untapped archival collections of photographs, films, and writings about Yakobson's work in Moscow and St. Petersburg for the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets, as well as interviews with former dancers, family, and audience members, this illuminating and beautifully written biography brings to life a hidden history of artistic resistance in the USSR through this brave artist, who struggled against officially sanctioned anti-Semitism while offering a vista of hope.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-21064-4
    Subjects: Performing Arts, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xiii)
    Lynn Garafola

    SOVIET DANCE HISTORY is full of muted voices, artists who spent de cades in creative silence while keeping inner faith with the modernist ideals of the 1920s. Among this courageous group was Leonid Yakobson. A choreographer as crotchety as he was resolute, Yakobson was an artist of contradictions, a modernist who shed his early proletarian skin but continued to make war on ballet and use unconventional movement, even as he worked with Russia’s greatest ballet dancers. He made dances for the leading Soviet companies, but struggled for years to establish his own troupe, which became the first of its kind...

  4. Note on Transliteration
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
    (pp. 1-8)

    JOSEPH STALIN’S box in the Bolshoi Theater survived the bomb that heavily damaged the building during World War II. Shunning the majestic red-velvet-draped tsar’s box that had been built as a stage within a stage for leaders when the grand theater was constructed in 1824, Stalin had restructured a more hidden side-stage box, with a complex of adjacent salons, to his specifi cations in 1936. He added a small office with a desk and chair in the gray salon, curtains, and, according to rumor, a dense window of bulletproof glass at the front of the box with surrounding reinforcements of...

  6. ONE Ballet and Power: Leonid Yakobson in Soviet Russia
    (pp. 9-59)

    THE BLACK-AND-WHITE FILM is only a fragment, yet its three-minute length documents a remarkable, intimate exchange between two of the most exceptional and beleaguered dance artists in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s: the highly individualistic choreographer Leonid Yakobson and the Kirov Ballet’s young virtuoso Mikhail Baryshnikov. Seated side by side as they face the mirror in a dressing room backstage at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, the sixty-five-year-old Yakobson and the twenty-one-year-old Baryshnikov are practicing a fleeting gesture fromVestris,a solo that Yakobson created for Baryshnikov in 1969. Repeatedly Yakobson unfurls the fingers of one hand, holding...

  7. TWO Beginnings: Learning to Be an Outsider
    (pp. 60-82)

    NO PHOTO EXISTS of the iron knuckles that the teen-aged Leonid Yakobson obtained in the autumn of 1918. He acquired the knuckles to protect his two younger brothers from older children stealing their warm coats while the three Yakobson boys—Leonid, fourteen; Sergey, thirteen; and Konstantin, twelve—were part of the Petrograd Children’s Colony, a storied encampment of eight hundred orphaned children trapped in the Ural Mountains near western Siberia during the Bolshevik Revolution.¹ Yakobson kept these iron knuckles in his pocket for most of his life, explaining that they off ered him a sense of security while returning from...

  8. THREE What Is to Be Done with Ballet?
    (pp. 83-163)

    THE USE OF ballet as a way of commenting on the Soviet state and its political ordering of the individual ironically began at the moment of its dismantling at the end of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yakobson was one of ballet’s most outspoken early critics—in editorials in the 1920s and 1930s he called for its destruction—but then he became one of its most passionate defenders.¹ He never abandoned either impulse, the revolution or the rebuilding; instead he continued to champion both to the end of his days, carry ing the experimental impulse of these early years deep into the...

  9. FOUR Chilling and Thawing: Cold War Ballet and the Anti-Jewish Campaign
    (pp. 164-240)

    COLD WAR TOTALITARIANISM invigorated Yakobson. Rather than being completely suffocated by it, he played with totalitarian discourse in his ballets, shaping counter viewpoints that could be perceived alongside the dominant messages. In the wake of the massive losses sustained by the USSR during World War II, hope rose and then faded for an end to the Soviet terror against its own citizens as well as for a stop to the treachery toward national minorities, especially the Jews. Dangerously, and defiantly, Yakobson choreographed his first Jewish works at this time, just as Jewish identity was under intensified attack by Soviet authorities....

  10. FIVE Spartacus
    (pp. 241-300)

    THERE IS NO ballet among the 180 works that Yakobson made over his lifetime that is more autobiographical, personally and professionally, thanSpartacus.The subject matter and circumstances of its per for mances would come to be freighted with meanings for him—beginning with the chance to create an original full-length work for the Kirov Ballet using a new approach to classical ballet and through to the content itself, the heroic courage of the leader of a slave revolt who bravely challenges a despot for liberty. Spartacus is Yakobson’s manifesto for the future of ballet. In it he maps a...

  11. SIX Dismantling the Hero
    (pp. 301-332)

    THE BALLETS THAT Yakobson made afterSpartacushad a different sort of strength. Increasingly they chipped away at the myth of the indestructible Stalinist-era male by presenting images of broken, abnormal dancing bodies. These were ballets with forms and movements that allowed antiheroic postures to be seen underneath the stolid hero image. In Soviet film and literature of the late 1950s, the fantasy Stalin hero was also being rewritten as the heroic wounded invalid, or what Soviet scholar Lilya Kaganovsky has dubbed “the second version of Stalin’s New Man.”¹ But the images that Yakobson was producing resisted being tucked back...

  12. SEVEN A Company of His Own: Privatizing Soviet Ballet
    (pp. 333-371)

    ON THE WINTRY afternoon of December 21, 1969, an exuberant Leonid Yakobson stood on the stage of Leningrad’s Dom Iskusstv (House of the arts) on Nevsky Prospect and unveiled his plan for what would become a new model for interactions among dance, nation, and the individual in Soviet Russia.¹ For Yakobson the Cold War had not been a freezer, it turned out, but an incubator.² Addressing an invited audience of journalists, art critics, theater associates, and, most important, fifty dancers he had just auditioned, Yakobson introduced the project he had spent the years since the end of World War II...

  13. EIGHT Totalitarianism, Uncertainty, and Ballet
    (pp. 372-418)

    AS HE WORKED to shatter the traditional configuration and narrative of the pas de deux inRodin(1958–1962), creating an aperture to the sexual tension within, Yakobson was simultaneously crafting his most bracing investigations of the form’s classical structure. Pas de deux studies spilled out of him—Rossini, Mozart, Donizetti, Lehár,each is a stylistic tribute in a different musical vernacular and a witty prod as to the type of emotional games a courtly ordering of sexual behavior can play. Having dissected the stories the pas de deux tells, he turned next to anatomizing its structures. Although it was...

    (pp. 419-434)

    AFTER LEONID YAKOBSON’S death, Irina, his widow, was appointed director of Choreographic Miniatures, where she served for eight months as she searched for a permanent replacement. The minister of culture, Pyotr Demichev, advised her not to rush the process, but she was concerned that her presence as director might make it easier for the authorities to eliminate the company completely. “Of course they could not promise that they would keep me as director,” she said. “I was not a choreographer and I was Jewish.” She persuaded Demichev to give the troupe to Askold Makarov, whose celebrity as a Kirov dancer...

  15. APPENDIX: Works by Leonid Yakobson
    (pp. 435-454)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 455-500)
  17. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 501-504)
  18. Index
    (pp. 505-522)