The Ballet Genius Who Took on the Soviets

Before there was Pussy Riot there was Leonid Yakobson. Using art to challenge authoritarian rule in Russia is a sport that dates back to the earliest days of the Russian revolution. While Pussy Riot launched their volley from inside Red Square, just across the street, on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre, during the most brutal decades of Stalinist repression, Yakobson spun out a toe shoe revolution.

Yakobson, a choreographer for the Kirov and Bolshoi Ballets, who began his artistic life in the charged climate of the post revolution days, sharpened ballet, long the heart of Soviet cultural identity, into a weapon. Despite being censored and silenced by Soviet authorities during his lifetime (1904-1975) Yakobson made 180 ballets, works that brought into the locked-down Soviet state a taste of the invention, abstraction, eroticism that paralleled what Yakobson’s former classmate, George Balanchine, was unfolding in America.

When the leading Russian dancers—Nureyev,

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