To find a like-minded modernist, you would have to look beyond ballet. Besides the rough-edged Rodin and Cézanne, Yakobson’s artistic kin include the 20th-century modern-dance maverick Martha Graham, with her highly stylized language for forbidden feelings, and the Soviet theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold—the inventor of biomechanics, by which the actor physicalizes every immaterial impulse to eerie and jolting effect.
Jerome Robbins, acclaimed for his work on Broadway but forever in Balanchine’s shadow at the New York City Ballet, once complained that ballet was the “ ‘civilizationing’ of my Jewishness.” Yakobson reversed the nouns, Jewishnessing civilization. In place of 19th-century nobility of manner or hunky Soviet stalwartness, he insisted on what the novelist Joseph Roth, recovering from a night at the Moscow State Yiddish Theater in 1926, designated the “Dionysian Jew”—by turns inflamed with passion, savagely melancholic, fanatically grieving, and dizzyingly joyful. “Every idea of the proverbial vitality of Jewish people you may have brought to this theater,” the shaken Roth attested, “was outdone.”
Dionysian Jew is the same kind of oxymoron as dancing your heart out: it binds frenzy to custom, lending legibility and power to passion. Yakobson seems to have understood how fundamental to ballet this paradoxical union is, because he chose stories and themes that brought it to the fore. In the thoroughly delightful fairy tale Shurale, a drunken husband and wife stumble home from their son’s wedding in a blur of exultation and renewed love—and in time to the music, a significant departure from the pantomime that traditional ballet would have enlisted for such a scenario. Their drunken steps are as patterned as their happiness—the memory of earlier weddings and the likelihood of later ones ringing round the present joy. And around that are all the other Tatar traditions that Shurale invokes. Facing backward to ritual and forward to the giddy moment, Yakobson met the daunting challenge of modernist ballet again and again.
In the decades following Balanchine’s death, ballet seemed to have reached a dead end. His heirs understood formalism as the most forward-looking and imitable of his many modes, but they didn’t appreciate how much its power depended on the spiritual yearnings and existential wisdom with which he infused the steps. Their work was dogged and desiccated, full of moves that signified nothing. What has finally lifted ballet out of this rut and made its future bright again are choreographers with mixed lineages—bastards of history who couldn’t repeat the past even if they wanted to, because there isn’t just one to repeat.
Yakobson could have predicted this fortuitous turn of events. If his story has a moral, it is that there are many roads to ballet’s future and none of them is paved.