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“The Soviets’ Cold War Choreographer”: Review in The Atlantic

Apollinaire Scherr reviews Janice Ross’s Like a Bomb Going Off in the June 2015 issue of The Atlantic. From the review:

To create modern art in a classical mode is to face forward and backward at once, yoked to the past while inching toward the future. Only a fool or a genius would attempt it. So I had heard of the Soviet ballet choreographer Leonid Yakobson, whose modernist advances took place on hostile home territory. I had seen Vestris, the solo he created for a young Mikhail Baryshnikov that compressed an early ballet master’s mercurial life into a few minutes; it was the only contemporary work the superstar brought with him when he defected in 1974. I knew that the best dancers in Leningrad and Moscow had deemed the choreographer a God-given genius and a rebel to boot.

But whom did these artists, trapped behind the Iron Curtain, have to compare him with? Their praise could easily be dismissed as nationalist hype. After all, the standard American view is that the Soviet vanguard of ballet barely outlived Lenin. The ferment was in Paris, where the young Russian émigré George Balanchine collaborated with Stravinsky on the groundbreaking Apollo for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Then the action traveled west, with Balanchine. Thanks to him and his New York City Ballet, angular, plotless, modernist works replaced silly story ballets as the art form’s pride. Without Balanchine, the thinking goes, ballet would have buried itself in the past—and indeed, since the master’s death, in 1983, it has struggled to chart a future.

In Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia, Janice Ross soundly rejects this self-congratulatory and ultimately self-defeating account. A dance scholar at Stanford, she delivers on her claim that “during the initial years of the Cold War, the West did not have an exclusive purchase on experimentation in dance.” The book’s timing could not be better: for the past decade or so, the Russians have been rehabilitating works from the Stalinist era that brilliantly debunk the notion that Soviet ballet slept out the 20th century. And Yakobson is the ideal figure on whom to focus a corrected and expanded ballet history. Other choreographers also experimented fruitfully and were periodically squashed by the state, and their work might have been even better. But the Leningrad Jew who was raised with the revolution, and who died before its whole edifice collapsed, is the peerless Balanchine’s perfect complement—the yin to his yang. Enlarging the parameters of ballet that Balanchine laid out, Yakobson’s example justifies the ecumenical spirit spurring on the art form today.

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Review in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Mark Franko reviews Janice Ross’s book Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia in a piece titled “The Un-Balanchine” for The Chronicle of Higher Education. From the review:

In America the premiere conveyor of that tradition was Balanchine. Who knew, though, that there was an un-Balanchine, Yakobson? Truly hidden behind the Iron Curtain, he tried to erase the boundaries between the pantomime moving the story forward and the so-called pure dance at the core of ballet as an art of movement. Rather than eliminate pantomime and psychology, Yakobson integrated them with movement, maintaining the integrity of the modernist project even as he avoided abstraction.

Ross focuses on the dichotomy between Yakobson’s career and Balanchine’s during the Cuban missile crisis, when there was a touring exchange between the New York City Ballet and the Bolshoi. Despite the popularity and critical esteem he enjoyed, Yakobson had to fend off anti-Semitic Communist censors. But while he was a resister in the Soviet Union, in the West he was the resisted. When his Spartacus was performed in New York City in 1962, his innovations were misunderstood by American critics as backward Soviet-realist clichés.

Ross’s is a fascinating rereading of ballet modernism, her careful documentation and insightful analysis revivifying a forgotten tradition. She constructively untidies our notions of how several centuries of choreography flowed into the 20th — an inspiring provocation for scholars and artists alike in the 21st.

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Boston Ballet’s 2015-16 season celebrates the work of Yakobson

An article in the Boston Globe by Jeffrey Gantz announces Boston Ballet’s 2015-2016 season repertory, including Leonid Yakobson’s Vestris, and special season opener devoted to Yakobson and moderated by Janice Ross.

The real rarity here, however, is the work by Yakobson. He was born in St. Petersburg in 1904, the same year as Balanchine, and Nissinen says, “he had a unique choreographic voice,” one that, along with his Jewish identity, challenged Soviet authority and caused his work to be suppressed for a time. Nissinen adds, “He really opened the eyes of dancers in Russia; they started thinking differently because of him. Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov worked with him. In 1969, he created a solo called ‘Vestris’ for Baryshnikov for the Moscow International Ballet Competition to showcase Misha’s acting skills and great classical technique.”

The season will also have an appetizer: a BB@home presentation, Sept. 17 and 19, at the company’s Clarendon Street headquarters devoted to Yakobson and commemorating the 40th anniversary of his death. The evening will include “Vestris” and “Rodin,” and it will be moderated by Janice Ross, author of the just-published “Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia.”

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Sarah Kaufman for The Washington Post: “Yakobson got there first, by nearly half a century”

Sarah Kaufman reviewed Janice Ross’s book Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia for the February 26, 2015 edition of the Washington Post. From the piece:

Ross is right: The story of this artist, all but unknown in the West, is a “hidden yet monumental tale” about an unruly genius who proved that Westerners weren’t the only ones turning ballet into a modern art.

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The Jewish Chronicle (UK) reviews “Like a Bomb Going Off”

Anne Sebba reviewed Janice Ross’s Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia for the Jewish Chronicle on February 19, 2015. 

Leonid Yakobson is probably one of the most famous Russian choreographers you’ve never heard of. He was also Jewish, a not unrelated fact.

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 Gorbachev, had used classical ballet for their own ends. He not only saw dance as an important medium of social expression but 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.

Ross is to be congratulated for finally giving [Yakobson] his due as the equal of Balanchine. One wonders why this genius of modern ballet is not better known.

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The Daily Beast runs excerpt of “fantastic new book” by Janice Ross

“The Ballet Genius Who Took on the Soviets” in The Daily Beast on February 5, 2015, describes the impact Leonid Yakobson had as a radical artist in his time and runs an excerpt of Janice Ross’s book Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia.

Before there was Pussy Riot there was Leonid Yakobson. Using art to challenge authoritarian rule in Russia is a sport that dates back to the earliest days of the Russian revolution. While Pussy Riot launched their volley from inside Red Square, just across the street, on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre, during the most brutal decades of Stalinist repression, Yakobson spun out a toe shoe revolution.

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