Magazine article The Spectator

'Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia', by Janice Ross - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia', by Janice Ross - Review

Article excerpt

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

Yale, pp.522, £30, ISBN: 9780300207637

On YouTube there's a brief dance video of a Viennese waltz so enchanting that not even Fred and Ginger in 'Cheek to Cheek' can outcharm it. A dandy in top hat and a captivatingly pretty girl in bonnet and white frills do ecstatic jumps and twirls in each other's arms to the seething Rosenkavalier waltz. That it's Soviet is almost unbelievable -- still more so that it dates from the still Stalinist 1954. But this is a gem by Leonid Yakobson, a choreographer who was one of the USSR's most arresting modern voices, yet of whom you will find rare mention in the West or Soviet ballet histories.

His challenging originality was championed by the independent-minded megastars of Soviet ballet, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, Maya Plisetskaya and Rudolf Nureyev (who adopted Yakobson's use of female feet for his own singular foot technique). In Janice Ross's eyecatching phrase, he 'carried modern ballet to safety' in the USSR, despite being penalised as a Jew and a modernist.

More provocatively, she contends that he was as great a talent as George Balanchine who went West via Diaghilev's Ballets Russes -- but that he was unluckier, and braver. Both men were born in January 1904, so you can see why a twin study catches the publisher's eye, but you should never believe what a blurb says. This isn't a twin study. Not the right twin study, anyway.

Yakobson learned about dance in the roaring Twenties in Leningrad's experimental cauldron, an admirer of Mayakovsky and young Shostakovich, while Balanchine was in Europe with Diaghilev. He burst into view in 1929 choreographing the 'football' act in The Golden Age , for which Shostakovich wrote the satirical music. He fused Jewish character grotesquery, Michel Fokine's ballet neo-classicism and Isadora Duncan's barefooted revolutions into a vibrant modern Soviet idiom, yet as you see from the Viennese waltz film, it could be as sexy and sweet as you like.

This fascinating character left little permanent trace on the official Soviet story, so a book is welcome. But it's a frustrating and sometimes suspect read, written by an academic with theories to peddle, selective in evidence, and without much talent for critical narrative. Ross has spent 25 years sniffing around the subject, and it shows in the accumulation of essays that largely make up the volume -- chronology jumps all over the place without narrative or argumentative coherence, and her narrow focus and absence of wider context do her theories no favours. …

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