Irina and Leonid Yakobson: Fear, art, and "realism"

July 1, 2020
Annie Schweikert
Natasha Porfirenko, Slavic and Eastern European expert and contributor to Stanford’s Special Collections

This guest blog was written by Natasha Porfirenko, PhD. Natasha is a long-standing and valued contributor to Stanford’s Special Collections for her expertise in Slavic and Eastern European materials. Her work in Special Collections has included processing a large volume of Slavic and Eastern European letters, postcards, objects, and ephemera preserved in Stanford’s archives of material from the committee to free Angela Davis. She is currently hard at work delving into the descriptive metadata of tapes depicting works of famous Soviet choreographer, Leonid Yakobson. Natasha was previously employed at the Hoover Institution Archives and also taught Russian and Ukrainian languages in Iowa and Connecticut. Her Eastern European knowledge and heritage provide a unique lens through which Stanford’s treasured works can be viewed.


Irina and Leonid Yakobson: Fear, art, and "realism"

While I was at home working on a Special Collection digital project—transcribing ballet performances staged by different schools of Russian ballet—a rare interview with Madame Irina Yakobson caught my eye and my curiosity. In it, Madame Yakobson pointed to the struggles of survival during the Soviet regime. She made particular reference to the political pressure to maintain a certain facade, an image of the Soviet Union approved by the party that determined what did and did not constitute art, among other things. People were criminalized and jailed if they didn’t toe the line. Yakobson’s husband, Leonid Veniaminovich, was famous for his unique and expressive choreography (1969-1976)—a rebellion against the status quo that was, for a time, successful and highly revered in the ballet community worldwide. However, the powers that be ultimately replaced him with someone more willing to conform and please the party.

Madame Yakobson and her husband took great personal risks, refusing to allow their fears of persecution to win over their tenacious efforts to create, rebuild, or enlighten the arts. Having lived under communism, I can identify with their struggle and, at the same time, feel fascinated by Madame Yakobson’s recollection of their fight to preserve artistic freedoms. We all share fears, fears that we must fight together regardless of origin. How we handle them will determine our legacy.

Madame Yakobson emigrated to the West after the death of her famous husband, in 1982. Her talent was in demand, and during her prolific career, she staged choreographic compositions in London, Amsterdam, Hamburg, and San Francisco. In her description of her experience in the West, I was fascinated by the difference between Soviet and Western approaches to ballet performances. For instance, a ballet performance that was created in the Soviet Union and rejected by audiences could still be considered a success and could be in repertoire for decades, as long as it satisfied the requirements of the so-called “higher rank” organizations and authorities. And it would be staged from season to season.
Success is defined differently in the West and more determined by the acceptance of the audience. Here, a choreographer is invited to stage a performance, or part of a performance, or some choreographic miniature, for a given season, and it goes on for a month only. It’s entirely possible that the theater will go with a new repertoire in the very next season. The system in Western and Soviet theaters was totally different!

Yakobson Irina Davidovna (Irina Pevzner) being interviewed by Janice Ross.

The style of Leonid Yakobson’s art was quite unlike other choreography in the Soviet Union. His innovations in choreography took the art of ballet to a new level. He believed that the ballet should be built on what he called choreographic symphonism, that is, not to dance about something, or on the occasion of something, but, rather, the whole ballet should be built on a completely different, more abstract principle. He demonstrated his approach with his first performance at the Kirov Theater in Leningrad, after which he had a lot of followers. It was a revolution in Soviet ballet—it was like a bomb blast at the time. (For more on Leonid Yakobson's life and work, you can read Stanford professor Janice Ross's study, Like a bomb going off: Leonid Yakobson and ballet as resistance in Soviet Russia, available online through SearchWorks.)

Yakobson also believed that each ballet should have an appropriate form, and that you cannot build all ballets in the single style approved by the Soviet Union, called "socialist realism." Socialist realism was a leading principle of idealized realistic art that was developed in the Soviet Union and was the official style in literature, painting, art, music, and theater between 1932 and 1988. The works of socialist realism are very diverse in style and content. But each of them contains the concept of the Goal in direct or indirect meaning, in an open or veiled expression. This can be a panegyric to communism and everything connected with it, or a satire on its many enemies, or, finally, any kind of description of life, “in its revolutionary development,” that is, again, in the movement towards communism.

If there is realism, then how is it socialist, why is it socialist? Madam Yakobson did not understand it, but did perceive it as a kind of historical optimism. But that did not reveal anything helpful or meaningful to her. If this was realism, then it should be as close as possible to real life. In ballet, the language of this socialist realism ordered ballet creators to focus on the country’s sacred classics. Russian classics, which are based on pointe shoes, inverted legs, pirouettes, or arabesques—but who in real life uses these techniques? What kind of realism is this, and how can one stage everything of every kind by these means? Madame Yakobson described her husband as a rebellious hero, at a time when defiance of any kind was dangerous. He fought all his life without compromising his principles or his creative life. He found in each performance its own language—language unique to the performance, rather than a language imposed by bureaucrats who didn’t understand anything about socialist realism in the classics. And for each character Yakobson found the character’s own individual language. If the play was about the present day, if it were about some Komsomol member, Zoika, in Vladimir Mayakovsky’s famous play, “The Bedbug,” he would rather kill the character than put her in pointe shoes—as you can see in this performance.

He found his own language for “The Bedbug,” he found his own language for “Spartacus”—it was the language of expressionism, or the language of satire, or the language of the grotesque, or of genre. But for each new performance there was always a completely new, unexpected, bright, and clear language, a language which frightened bureaucrats. And that's why, Madame Yakobson thought, it was impossible to say what was particularly special in his oeuvre. The answer was: everything was special, everything was new, and, according to her, ingenious.

Dancers in brightly-colored leotards perform a Leonid Yakobson composition.


Today, as I look toward a library once active with curious minds now largely homebound by a new fear, the fear of a virus and the unknown, I am reminded that fear is always what you make of it. There is comfort in taking shelter and shrinking away from that which scares us, but, ultimately, how we choose to fight our fears and rebuild society will determine not only what kind of arts we have but also the world our children will know. We can never stop fighting. We can never stop creating. There is still so much left to learn. The Stanford Library, the Archives, the history, and the knowledge that it holds have many lessons yet to teach us. Check us out, online or in-person (later), and find out for yourself! If you have a Stanford login, you can stream the Yakobson interviews and performances through SearchWorks.