Book Review: Like A Bomb Going Off
by Janice Ross
Yale University Press, 2015
The subject of Janice Ross’s utterly engrossing new book is a 20th-Century dance maestro only dance aficionados have ever heard of: Leonid Yakobson, a contentious contemporary of much better-known figures like George Ballanchine, a mentor to two generations of the greatest Russian dancers, and the frequent sparring-partner of the infamous Soviet censors. Yakobson never left the repression of his homeland; he managed to carve out an artistic signature over decades at the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets by a combination of canny subterfuge and sheer force of personality. As Lynn Garafola remarks in her Foreward to Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia, “In some respects, Yakobson remained an essentially Soviet artist, wed to the libretto, to character rooted in time and space, to commissioned scores and lavish scenery. In others, he refused to conform.”
Ross’s book is a landmark study of this figure and his setting, the kind of study all future English-language books on the topic will need to consult, and the book’s understated brilliance lies in the fact that Ross takes an approach that even her volatile and preening subject would have approved: she concentrates as much on the position and power of ballet in the Soviet Union as she does on Yakobson’s life and pertinent quotes. There were no neat delineations between the man and his embattled art while he was alive, and there are none in this great book (whose title comes from one awestruck viewer’s description of what seeing a new Yakobson production was like). Ross has a fine, sensitive understanding of the very public ramifications of the art form she refers to as “the ultimate stealth art form”:
Choreographers, particularly ballet choreographers, are rarely if ever valorized as heroic art makers, especially when confronting a totalitarian political state. In the Cold War lore it was the defecting Soviet dancers who were the heroes. The ones who made the dances, the choreographers, were rarely if ever mentioned as potential radicals.
Yakobson was born in Saint Petersburg in 1904, the grandson of a violinist for the Imperial Ballet, and he grew up “in the rich period of experimentation” that flourished in the 1920s. He endured wilderness years in aesthetic exile from the official powers of the dance world, continuously working, creating 178 ballets in a creative career spanning fifty years, as a choreographer for first the Bolshoi Ballet and then the Kirov and cannily navigating both “the absurd horror of Stalinist Russia” and the cultural “thaw” following the death of Stalin. “Yakobson’s resilient optimism,” Ross writes, “enabled him to survive as a defiant artist in a climate that reduced others to blind despair.”
That personal defiance is everywhere on display in his work. The title of this book is aptly chosen; there’s nothing quite like watching Yakobson choreography – as Russia’s greatest dancers knew well. They may have found Yakobson at times difficult to work with, but leading lights like the Kirov’s Natalia Makarova and of course the internationally famous Mikhail Baryshnikov all recognized the ways in which Yakobson was a genius ahead of his time, which, given the regressive nature of Soviet society, he achieved, ironically, by looking to the past, as Ross points out:
Part of what lends his story its uniqueness is Yakobson’s determination to keep alive the radical aesthetic impulses of this earlier period of artistic experimentation. That he succeeded in doing so within a Soviet cultural climate opposed to modernism – one mandating that art should be direct, uplifting, and with a clear narrative accessible to the broad masses – made his achievement all the more remarkable.
As a narrative of what Ross calls Yakobson’s “particularly charged relationship with Soviet authority,” Like a Bomb Going Off is by turns infuriating and uplifting; it will leave its readers maddened by the predictable fear of imagination shared by all totalitarian regimes but also thrilled that stories of courage such as Yakobson’s are possible in such regimes at all. Most of all the book will leave its readers on fire to see a Yakobson ballet for themselves – not by any means an easy thing to do in the 21st century outside of Russia, but well worth the effort.