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 6å Enfant Terrible Leonid Iakobson and The Bedbug, 1962 For every new production, Iakobson wangled, begged, implored the authorities. And then—he defended himself, returned abuse, brushed it aside. An Iakobson premiere was always, without fail, a negotiation, a scandal, the jitters. —Maya Plisetskaya In her autobiography, Natalia Makarova remembers that in her first year at the Kirov, she was “fabulously lucky”—she fell into the hands of the choreographer Leonid Iakobson, the choreographic enfant terrible of Soviet ballet, a person of notoriously difficult character who was known as the “Chagall of ballet” because of his fertile and unique choreographic imagination . For the young Makarova, creating the role of Zoya Berezkina in Iakobson’s ballet The Bedbug was a turning point: “In The Bedbug, I sensed for the first time just how constrained I had felt in the romantic vein. . . . I am eternally grateful to Iakobson for believing in me and, little by little, as it were incidentally, drawing out my nature and myself.”1 Dancers like Plisetskaya and Makarova considered Iakobson a rarely gifted choreographer and, in their memoirs, mourn the persistent persecution of his work as one of the tragedies of Soviet ballet.2 But far from everyone shared their enthusiasm for his works that broke with the tradition of classical dance, replacing it with a unique choreographic idiom that combined diverse elements like pantomime, newly invented movements, classical dance vocabulary, movements rejecting even the basis of classical dance—the en dehors position of the hips—and so forth. Many dancers and members of the ballet establishment looked at his creations as the dangerous ravings of a madman threat-  z Enfant Terrible ening the citadel of classical dance, while the authorities opposed his works as ideologically questionable testimonies to nonconformism. The acrimonious debates surrounding Iakobson’s ballet The Bedbug, created for the Kirov in the early 1960s, show both the remarkable concessions that strategic persistence could wring from the system and the interplay of artistic and political-ideological pressures that ultimately imposed limitations on choreographic experimentation—and artistic autonomy—both during the Thaw and during the ensuing period of official reassertion of ideological control over the arts. The ballet’s history spans a period that includes the height of cultural tolerance during the Thaw, symbolized by the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in autumn 1962, and the hasty reaffirmation of the borders of the culturally permissible in the winter and spring of 1962–1963. The ballet seemingly responded to the government’s impatient call for ballets on Soviet topics, but Iakobson’s choice of topic reflected his artistic strategy of stubbornly fighting for an uncompromised implementation of his highly individualistic vision of choreography and art. Iakobson did not choose a simple propaganda plot but a literary source open to interpretation . In June 1962, after a five-year-long battle, Iakobson’s ballet The Bedbug, based on Mayakovsky’s play of the same name, premiered at the Kirov. The ballet received fifteen performances and then became one of two ballets staged by the Kirov singled out for attack during Khrushchev’s showdown with the creative intelligentsia in 1962–1963.3 The interaction of artistic criticisms made by the more conservative ballet establishment with politically based aesthetic-ideological concerns shows how nonconformists like Iakobson often faced a two-front battle in the field of Soviet cultural production: in a system where the state controlled cultural production, highly individualistic artists like Iakobson remained dependent on large, state-sponsored—and state-supervised—ensembles like the Kirov. At the same time, Iakobson’s choreographic style, artistic vision, and character doomed him to the role of an outsider within his own profession. Iakobson was in many ways an “antiestablishment” choreographer who, if he had been born in the West, would arguably have been more likely to found his own company than to work for a big classical ensemble. Within the Soviet context of state-controlled cultural production, however, it was virtually impossible to create one’s own company. Until Iakobson finally managed to found his own ensemble, Choreographic Miniatures, in Leningrad in 1969 toward the end of his life, he remained dependent on the conservative ballet establishment not just for infrastructure like a stage and rehearsal space but also for access to the highly professional dancers he needed. In addition, and z Enfant Terrible  also once Iakobson had his own ensemble, the political and ideological controls imposed on artistic creation in the Soviet Union continued to make...


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