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When a pli was a protest

Jews in the former Soviet Union protested the oppressiveness of the regime in a variety of ways, from the resolute struggle of the refuseniks to the subtle digs of the great Jewish poets, painters and singer-songwriters.

But ballet? That was hardly the protest medium of choice, although it’s filled that role in other countries, including the United States. We don’t hear much about Soviet Jews who stayed behind and fought for artistic freedom, as well as Jewish expression, within the strict confines of the Soviet ballet system.

That’s what Janice Ross is out to change. A dance historian and professor in the drama department at Stanford University, Ross is completing a book on Jewish ballet great Leonid Jacobson, whom she describes as the leading Russian Jewish dance artist of the 20th century and an artistic as well as a Jewish rebel. 

Janice Ross

“A pariah during his lifetime,” she says, “with many of his ballets censored and suppressed, Jacobson … used ballet to express the conditions of a persecuted ethnic minority in the USSR — the Jews.”

Ross will speak about her research on Thursday, Feb. 16 at the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

Jacobson’s is a fascinating tale, more so because it is so little known. “His work was forbidden for many years, particularly his Jewish-themed dances,” Ross explains. “My research is an effort to write this neglected history back into the history of the Soviet Union.”

Leonid Jacobson was born in 1904 and lived his entire life in the Soviet Union, dying in Moscow in 1975. He was an aesthetic innovator, says Ross, who tried to remake the Soviet ideal of the dancer’s body by insinuating different movements into it, including certain stereotypically Jewish mannerisms.

“A lot of the gestures we think of as typically Jewish — an excess of emotion, the hunched-over look, the movement equivalents of Yiddishisms  — he was tucking into his ballets,” says Ross. “It was his art that upset the officials, not his Jewishness. But in the Soviet Union you were made more Jewish because the Soviets forced that identity on you, by virtue of all the prohibitions.”

Although just seven of his ballets had clear Jewish themes, Jacobson was proud of his Jewish heritage, says Ross. “That outsider status gave him the ability to be a cultural outsider. It gave him a certain boldness to make art that challenged Soviet Realist norms.”

Jacobson became a leading choreographer for the Kirov and Bolshoi ballets, but clashed repeatedly with the authorities. When he first staged his ballet “Rodin,” about the great French sculptor Claude Rodin, the authorities forbade him to dress his dancers in flesh-colored leotards. “They said it was pornographic,” Ross says.

Leonid Jacobson, circa 1937 photo/courtesy janice ross

In 1970 he created his most famous Jewish-themed ballet, “A Jewish Wedding,” set in a fictional Sholem Aleichem-style shtetl. The set design was modeled after Marc Chagall, whose work was forbidden at the time — a friend who worked at Leningrad’s Hermitage museum let him into the locked room where Chagall’s works were kept.

It took five years for Soviet authorities to permit him to stage it, and only on condition that he remove the word “Jewish” from its name, Ross says.  The ballet was performed in 1975 as “Wedding Cortege.”

It’s astonishing that Jacobson was able to survive the Stalinist years, a miracle Ross attributes to his tremendous popularity and to the fact that unlike some other Jewish artists, Jacobson remained apolitical. His activism, says Ross, was in his dance.

Nevertheless in 1949, at the height of the anti-Jewish “Terror,” Jacobson was indeed denounced by the Kirov as a “cosmopolitan” (code word for “Jewish”). He was fired and didn’t work again until Stalin’s death in 1953.

His widow, Irina Jacobson, became a refusenik in 1981, and now at 85 splits her time between Israel and Germany, where she is still in demand as a teacher. “She told me that if Stalin hadn’t died then, Leonid would have been sent to the gulag,” says Ross.

Ross’s ongoing friendship with Jacobson’s widow is another facet of this tale. The two met in 1985 when Ross, then a dance critic for the Oakland Tribune, heard that Irina Jacobson had left the Soviet Union and was teaching at the San Francisco Ballet. Ross had been given a copy of Irina’s Soviet emigration file some time earlier, and had archived it for future research.

“A chill went through me,” Ross recalls, speaking about her excitement to hear that the great choreographer’s widow was in the Bay Area. Ross interviewed her, with fellow defector, ballerina Natalya Makarova, acting as translator. The story was published in the New York Times.

“She was very cautious at first,” Ross recalls. “It took a long time before she’d talk about [Leonid’s] Jewishness.”

The two women still speak about once a week, Ross says.

This spring, after decades of research, Ross is completing her manuscript and looking for a publisher. Irina Jacobson gave her the bulk of her husband’s archives, which Ross is in the process of transferring to the Stanford library. When that’s completed, she says, they’ll have the largest Jacobson collection outside of Moscow — and with it, an important piece of Soviet Jewish history.

Janice Ross 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16 BJE Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Free. www.bjesf.org

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.