Theater & art

Boston Ballet showcases dance by little-known Russian master

Members of the Boston Ballet rehearse Leonid Yakobson’s “Pas de Quatre.”
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Members of the Boston Ballet rehearse Leonid Yakobson’s “Pas de Quatre.”

Leonid Yakobson may be the most influential 20th-century ballet choreographer most people have never heard of. A Russian contemporary of George Balanchine known for his culturally explosive experimentalism, Yakobson (1904-1975) didn’t immigrate to the West, as Balanchine did in 1924, but instead toughed it out in his native country. And facing the oppressive state-sanctioned anti-Semitism of Stalin, Yakobson, who was Jewish, persisted in creating works that reflected the Soviet condition. In the process, he became a symbol of dissidence.

Yakobson has had a cult following in Russia, and he inspired a generation of important Soviet dancers, including Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova. Yet 40 years after his death, only 10 of this prolific choreographer’s works are available for reconstruction. They are rarely performed, and Yacobson is still fairly unknown in the United States.

Boston Ballet is making a concerted effort to change that. The company’s presentation of Yakobson’s lyrical “Pas de Quatre” on its “Kaleidoscope” program, March 17-26 at Boston Opera House, marks the third venue at which it has recently presented Yakobson’s work, including a dedicated “BB@home” program in the fall titled “Celebrating the Legacy of Leonid Yakobson: From Oppression to Honor” at the company’s South End studio, and a performance of “Pas de Quatre” in October at New York’s City Center’s “Fall for Dance” festival. According to Janice Ross, author of the recent book “Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia,” Boston Ballet’s efforts represent the biggest revival of Yakobson’s work outside of Russia, with plans for two other works, “Rodin” and “Vestris,” to be performed at the Opera House in the future.

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“When you come across these gems that haven’t been seen that much, it’s wonderful to bring some light to them, and this one comes with an amazing story,” says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. Yakobson, Nissinen notes, was one of the major artists suppressed by the Soviet regime. “He was born a couple days apart from Balanchine, went to school at the same time, but Balanchine left for the West and he stayed in Russia, and the end results were so, so dramatically different. But eventually, they couldn’t hold his brilliance down.”

Leonid Yakobson in his study in Russia, around 1971.
Courtesy Janice Ross.
Leonid Yakobson in his study in Russia, around 1971.
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Nissinen is committed to showcasing that brilliance. He first met Yakobson’s widow, Irina, in 1979 in St. Petersburg, later performing in revivals of the choreographer’s works as a dancer with Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. In San Francisco, Nissinen also studied with Irina Yakobson, a teacher with the company (1987-2000) and the keeper of her husband’s work after his death. Nissinen says Irina, now 92 and living in Haifa, became not just a professional mentor but a dear friend, and he is honored that she selected Boston Ballet to help preserve her husband’s legacy.

“I am very pleased that Mikko and Boston Ballet are showcasing Leonid’s work,” Irina Yakobson said via e-mail. “The continued visibility of his work is extremely important to me, and to the history of dance. I have known Mikko for many years and I know he will take good care of these ballets.”

Nissinen emphasizes the influence Yakobson had on dance in Russia: “I think a big part of why people like Baryshnikov and Makarova defected was that they had worked with Yacobson, and that started this thirst for work that danced through the boundaries of classical ballet,” he speculates. “He was one of the first really different, interesting voices in Russia.” In 1975, Moscow critic Vadim Gayevsky called him the “spiritual colleague of Rodin, Chagall and Shostakovich.”

Yakobson was born in St. Petersburg and trained at the Kirov Academy. He was affiliated with the Kirov Ballet for nearly 50 years, choreographing works for the Bolshoi Ballet as well. His works were often censored or banned by Soviet authorities for challenging the hallmarks of classical ballet. Ross says the choreographer used ballet as a kind of stealth weapon to challenge a repressive totalitarian regime. He introduced athletic movements that transformed the softer curved shapes of classical ballet with sharper, more modernistic lines and imbued some of his choreography with a sensuality the authorities considered pornographic. He also tended toward radical music, like the twelve-tone dissonance of Alban Berg, a departure from the hallmarks of order favored by Soviet classicists. “[His choreography] has this plasticity and expression through human movement that is so unlike anybody else,” Nissinen says.

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Given all that, “Pas de Quatre” is one of Yakobson’s most traditional works. A graceful, elegant tribute to the Romantic era and 19th-century choreographer Jules Perrot, it is set to melodies from Bellini’s lyrical opera “Norma” and features four women in long white tutus. With four solos framed by ensemble sections at the beginning and end, it premiered in St. Petersburg in 1971, a time in which the ballet world was rife with competitive divas vying for the spotlight. Once again bucking the system, Yakobson created a work founded instead on a spirit of cooperation and sisterhood among the four soloists.

The work is technically challenging, especially the ethereal opening ensemble, in which the four women link arms and dance swirling chains of intricate shifting patterns, continuously holding hands.

“It’s like a continuous tangle that takes breathing and moving together,” says principal dancer Ashley Ellis, who performs in one of the casts. It’s very difficult, but when it flows, it feels wonderful and brings out magic.”

Kaleidoscope

Presented by Boston Ballet. At Boston Opera House, March 17-26. Tickets $35-$149.

617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.

A previous version mischaracterized Nissinen’s initial connection with Yakobson.