Charlotte Kasner

Like A Bomb Going Off, Leonid Jakobson

There is a dearth of material available on Leonid Jakobson (also variously spelled as ‘Yakobson’ and ‘Jacobsen’). Although he is relatively well known, by reputation at least, in Europe, one may assume that is not as much the case in the rest of the world. Janice Ross is a professor in the Theatre and Performance Studies Department at Stanford University and before even opening it, the subtitle is a clue that her book was written seemingly with an undergraduate audience in mind. Let us hope that those minds are rather more enquiring than that of the author.

“Like a Bomb Going Off” is a very odd book indeed. It is almost as if the beginning and end have been written by a completely different person to the author of the middle section. And Ross’ reasonably liberal interpretation of Jacobson’s oeuvre is sandwiched between what reads like little more than a rant.

There is no doubt that Jacobsen had an “interesting” start in life. Plunged into the civil war as an orphaned teenager, he embarked with a group of other children, on an epic voyage across the Urals to Vladivostok and back home via the USA. However in order to discover this from Ross’ book, it is necessary to wade through a 50-page diatribe on “Swan Lake” and a potted history of Jewish theatre in the Soviet Union that while interesting lacks depth. And far from placing Jakobson’s life in broad context, it nails the author’s colours firmly to the mast. It is as if the Cold War never ended, the Berlin Wall was still extant and HUAC was the product of a fevered imagination.

The opening 240 pages or so could have been written any time between 1950 and 1989. Only Soviet ballet exists in an ideological context, we are led to believe, and only Russians are restricted from performing. There may as well have been no Voice of America, no Wall Street Crash, no Rosenbergs and, of course, it was the USA who saved Russians from starvation in the 1920s.

Then comes the excellent chapter on “Spartacus” in which Ross details the signature ballet and how Jakobson choreographed a work that made the oppressors seemed less western capitalists than the Soviets themselves, and the whole tone changes. Here, the analysis is balanced and nuanced. It reads like a completely different voice. Gradually however, the tone reverts and the final chapters are as strident as the beginning.

There are few people remaining who worked with Jakobson and their voices are at least preserved here in part. The ephemeral nature of dance means that we are left with fading, fallible memories, two dimensional images and the difficulties of describing a plastique art on the page. There are fragments of film, but mostly Jakobson’s work is lost.

It does not help that there are typos and howlers scattered throughout the text, the latter including attributing Saint-Saens’ The Swan to a “tremulous solo violin” and designating the Soviet prison system as the “Gulag labor campus” [sic]. It may be artistic, but it is printed on paper that would be useful for blotting and cut roughly so that pages looked as if they have been ripped from their fellows. Although accepting that the originals are likely far from top quality, images are fuzzy and lacking in contrast.

Reading this book is a huge effort. Ross clearly cares deeply about her subject, but one cannot help feeling it could, and perhaps should, have been so much more. But given the paucity of material on Jacobson, it is probably maybe worth having the shelf as a reference to dip into for the time being.

Like a Bomb Going Off, Leonid Jakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia
Janice Ross
Yale University Press
Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press
ISBN-13: 978-0300207637