Rupturing the Soviet Ballet Archive: Leonid Yakobson and Cultural Production as Resistance

Abstract for Paper Proposal submitted by Janice Ross, Ph.D, Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, Stanford University

This paper explores the regulation of Jewish identity in 20th century Soviet Russia though the lens of ballet as an archive of cultural exile. It traces the how the ballets of the leading experimental voice in mid-20th century Soviet ballet – Leonid Yakobson (1904- 1975) – created a rupture with Socialist Realism by embracing a modernist aesthetic and valorizing shunned images of the cultural outsider in Yakobson’s signature work, Jewish Wedding.

Yakobson was the target of highly successful strategies of erasure and silencing during his most productive years, years that coincided with the quarter century of Josef Stalin’s regime of terror. (1922-1953). My research is propelled by a range of questions about how Yakobson represented on stage the displacement caused by maintaining a Jewish identity in ballet. It is about the “Why?” underlying the censorship Yakobson was subjected to for attempting to inscribe a corporeal presence of Jewishness on one of the most regulated Western ideals of the pure, culturally unmarked body– Russian classical ballet at the Kirov and Bolshoi Ballets.

I argue that in Jewish Wedding Yakobson was intuitively gesturing toward a choreographic sensibility of a carnivalesque strategy like that his contemporary, the cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, had identified in his study of late 15th and early 16th century Rabelaisian literature. Yakobson couched his critiques in the choreographic carnivalesque in an attempt to slip his Jewish-themed dances past the censors, while still making them legible to cross-viewing audiences. I unfold this examination through a close reading of rare archival footage of Yakobson’s controversial ballet, Jewish Wedding, set to Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio Op.67 to the Memory of Ivan Sollertinsky. This ballet is a requiem in honor of the vanishing shtetl Jew in Soviet Russia where marriage becomes a ceremony of tragedy and loss rather than rejoicing and the ballet body is fractured and broken as it delivers this message of exile, displacement and disappearance.