Leonid Yakobson is probably one of the most famous Russian choreographers you’ve never heard of. He was also Jewish, a not unrelated fact. Scouring the internet for more information on this talented and courageous dancer, choreographer and cultural polemicist who died in 1975, I found what little there is about him is there largely thanks to the work of Janice Ross, Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at Stanford University, spotlighting his reputation. Ross has devoted years to interviewing his widow Irina, a former dancer twenty years younger than Yakobson now living in Israel, and her testimony forms a valuable part of the resulting biography, Like a Bomb Going off. This is not just a long overdue tribute to a talented artist but also a fascinating insight into how succeeding totalitarian regimes tried and failed to stifle a unique voice who above all was determined never to relinquish his Jewish identity even as Jews were being arrested andcharged with being ‘rootless cosmopolitans’.
Leonid Yakobson, grandson of a violinist, had a difficult start in life. In 1918, due to the famine in Petrograd, he and his brothers were shipped off to Siberia along with hundreds of orphaned children – an experience that lasted nearly three years and where he acquired his combative spirit as well as, rather later than usual, some rudimentary dancing skills. One of the most moving stories in the book recounts a remarkable scene at the Leningrad Conservatory in 1973 when the American Red Cross worker, Birle Bramhall, responsible for rescuing the surviving children, was in Leningrad for an award. Yakobson invited him and fellow survivors to attend a performance of his ballet company without realising the concert was sold out. Yakobson went on stage, told the audience about the rescue operation, promising seats for another night if a hundred of them would give up their places that evening.
Yakobson started out as a choreographer in 1925 just as George Balanchine departed to the west. Russia’s loss offered Yakobson a chance to make his name as a young choreographer at the Bolshoi and he created his first ballets a year after Balanchine left and never stopped. Even as he lay dying he insisted that he had just created a new ballet from his bed.
Yakobson was not afraid to use ballet as a way of commenting on the state and its political ordering of the individual. He understood how in Russia the ruling powers from Lenin to Stalin even including Gorbachov had used classical ballet for their own ends. He too saw dance as an important medium of social expression but in his case he was determined to make it a vital repository of cultural memories of ethnicity, invention, modernism and resistance, all of which were at risk of being erased. Jewish identity was at the forefront of his thinking and, bravely, he created two specifically Jewish-themed works – Jewish Wedding and Jewish Dance – which paid homage to the paintings of Chagall and the stories of Sholem Aleichem.
This book is not an easy read and suffers from a slightly odd structure but then it is not intended for the lay reader, unfamiliar with choreographic details of other ballets. With so much of Yakobson’s creativity lost and unrecorded, Ross is to be congratulated for finally giving Yakobson his due as the equal of Balanchine. Read it and you will wonder why this genius of modern ballet is not better known.