Ballet thrived in Russia during the late 19th century, where a French choreographer by the name of Marius Petipa (who became knows as “the father of Russian ballet”), and a composer by the name of Tchaikovsky, made their enduring marks with a slew of classics and the support of the imperial court.
With the arrival of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the cultural scene in what became the Soviet Union changed. Many great “white Russian” artists fled to Paris and beyond, George Balanchine among them. Meanwhile, the spirit of modernist experimentation that had begun to take root in early 20th century Russia was quickly squelched, and ironically, the imperial tradition of classical ballet became a potent commodity for the Soviet regime.
Of course art persists under even the harshest conditions. Leonid Yakobson (1904 – 1975), a Russian Jewish choreographer, is a classic example. Born in St. Petersburg, he caused waves with his modernist approach to dance while still a student at the Leningrad Choreographic School, and almost from the start he found himself in conflict with the Soviet party and ballet officials.
In her new, richly illustrated book, “Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia” (Yale University Press, $40), Janice Ross, director of the dance division at Stanford University, chronicles the life and career of this creative force who remains almost entirely unknown in the West, although he certainly was familiar to such fabled dancers as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova and Maya Plisetskaya.
This Sunday (Jan. 17) at 2 p.m., Ross will be at Chicago’s Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, 610 S. Michigan, to give a talk about Yakobson, and to share rare archival footage uncovered during her research for the book.
Thwarted at every turn during the darkest days of the Stalin era, Yakobson persisted (even addressing Jewish themes at times, which certainly went against the official policies of antisemitism). And he created what are considered revolutionary ballets – for the Kirov, where he ran into many difficulties, as well as for less high-profile companies.
Only in 1969, quite late in life, was Yakobson left alone to manage a theater he co-founded in Leningrad. It was named Choreographic Miniatures, and among the first ballets he created there was “Vestris,” which earned Baryshnikov a gold medal in a Moscow competition.
Although Yakobson’s work is now being championed anew, very little of it was preserved. But for her book, Ross sought out untapped archival collections of photographs, films, and writings, as well as interviews with former dancers, family, and audience members.
“Like a Bomb Going Off” will be available for purchase at the Spertus event, and Ross will sign copies of her book. Tickets to her presentation are $18 ($8 for students). Call (312) 322-1773 or visit http://www.spertus.edu.