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Janice Ross: 'Leonid Yakobson: Ballet as a Weapon in Soviet Russia'

Soviet Dance History has its share of muted voices – artists who spent decades in creative silence while keeping inner faith with modernist ideals of the 1920s. 

Foremost among this creative group was Leonid Yakobson. A choreographer who was as quick tempered as he was resolute, Yakobson was an artist of contradictions, a modernist who started out with proletarian ideals and continued to make war on ballet and use unconventional movement, even as he worked with Russia’s greatest ballet dancers. He made dances for the leading Soviet companies – the Bolshoi and Kirov – but struggled for years to establish his own troupe, which became the first of its kind in postwar USSR. 


He was a Jew who created his first Jewish-themed dances in the late 1940s as Jews were being arrested as “rootless cosmopolitians” and “bourgeoise Nationalists.”  Yet he never tried to emigrate or leave Russia. He was a man with a profound sense of irony who seemed unfazed when a ballet of his disappeared at a censor’s pen stroke. He had an unquenchable desire to make dances and to transform Russian ballet. Denied a studio and fired from the Kirov he wrote libretti, on his deathbed he dreamed of choreographing a new ballet. And along the way he inspired and worked with the greatest Russian dancers of his generation including Maya Plisteskaya, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, Valery Panov, Alla Ossipenko.


Janice Ross tells his story, and provides insight into the dangerous world of dissident dances he sustained during the most difficult years of Stalin's reign.

Janice Ross, Professor, Theatre and Performance Studies Department, Stanford University is the author of Like A Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and  Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia (Yale University Press, January 2015). Ross’s other books include Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance, (UC Press 2007), San Francisco Ballet at 75 (Chronicle Books 2007) and Moving Lessons: Margaret H’Doubler and The Beginning of Dance in American Education, (UW 2001). Her awards include Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships and grants from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and the Israel Institute. She is past president of the Society of Dance History Scholars and the Dance Critics Association.