Who was Leonid Yakobson?

Leonid Yakobson

Image courtesy of Janice Ross

Discover the courageous choreographer whose revolutionary works just barely survived Soviet-era censorship.

Lasha Khozashvili and Erica Cornejo perform "The Minotaur and the Nymph" from Rodin (2015)

Photo credit: Igor Burlak Photography

Misa Kuranaga, ji Young Chae, Maria Baranova, and Erica Cornejo perform Pas de Quatre (2015)

Photo credit: Igor Burlak Photography

“The most influential choreographer most people have never heard of”

Choreographer Leonid Yakobson (1904–1975) spent his life working and creating in the Soviet Union. He and GEORGE BALANCHINE were contemporaries—both were born in St. Petersburg in 1904 and spent time with Kirov Ballet Theatre (now Mariinsky Ballet) during their formative years. However, their paths diverged in 1924, when Balanchine defected to France to join Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as a choreographer before making his way to America. Yakobson remained in the Soviet Union and continued to struggle against anti-Semitism, censorship, and backlash in reaction to his revolutionary vision.

Yakobson’s career was shaped by the cultural and political realities of working under Soviet-era conditions. The Boston Globe calls him “the most influential 20th century choreographer most people have never heard of.” Few of his works survived repression and censorship, and even fewer are still performed today. Balanchine’s subsequent trajectory toward international fame and his legacy as “the father of American ballet” stand in stark contrast.

Creating art against the odds

Yakobson choreographed for the Bolshoi Ballet until his death in 1975. Known for an explosive and experimental style, he introduced Soviet audiences to a groundbreaking aesthetic they had never witnessed before. Dance historian JANICE ROSS, author of Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia, explains that he used his works as a kind of “stealth weapon” to challenge a repressive totalitarian regime.

“His ballets can appear complacent and docile on the surface while just below they display an aggressive aesthetic that challenges the status quo,” she writes.

Yakobson, who embraced his Jewish identity, faced vicious state-sanctioned anti-Semitism. His works were often censored or banned by Soviet authorities for challenging the hallmarks of classical ballet. But these hardships further fueled his creative capacity, leading him to choreograph 30 ballets and nearly 200 BALLET MINIATURES. Yakobson developed a cult following in Russia and inspired a generation of important Soviet dancers, including Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova. He is still considered an important symbol of political resistance in the 20th century.

Dance Critic Roslyn Sulcas explains, “Despite the incessant repression and censorship that marked Soviet life—and his own—[Yakobson] would carve out a career as an important and innovative choreographer within a system inimical to invention and freedom of thought” (The New York Times).

Mikko Nissinen and Irina Yakobson, circa 1985.

Image courtesy of Mikko Nissinen

Preserving Yakobson’s legacy

Boston Ballet is one of the FEW COMPANIES in the United States to perform Yakobson’s work today, and is committed to carrying on his legacy. Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen first met Yakobson’s widow Irina in 1979 in St. Petersburg when he was a student at the Kirov Ballet School. He later performed in revivals of the choreographer’s works with Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. He studied with Irina at San Francisco Ballet, where she taught with the Company from 1987–2000, and considered her not just a professional mentor but a dear friend.

“I am honored to be the custodian of these special pieces,” comments Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen. “It is rare to see Leonid Yakobson’s choreography performed in the United States, and it is Boston Ballet’s privilege to present his work in celebration of his legacy and to share this unsung choreographer with new dance audiences.”

Boston Ballet continues to shed new light on Yakobson’s transformative work, performing sections of his choreographic miniatures as part of BB@yourhome: Look Back, Focus Forward during the 2020–2021 VIRTUAL SEASON.

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