SAN FRANCISCO — When Irina Jakobson talks about the psychological harassment and artistic censorship she and her husband endured at the hands of Soviet cultural authorities, her memories repeatedly trail off into frustrated silence. "Ah, you wouldn't understand, you could never understand," she says.
Sitting in the plush faculty lounge of the San Francisco Ballet where she joined the teaching staff this summer, Jakobson's focus now, however, is far more on the promises of the future than the ordeals of the past. She has been in constant demand at major ballet academies around the world since she was finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1983, three years after she was branded a refusenik and fired from her job as ballet mistress at the Bolshoi.
A soloist for 20 years with the Kirov Ballet, a teacher at the Vaganova College of Choreography in Leningrad and one of the last pupils trained directly by Agrippina Vaganova, (the woman who perfected Soviet Ballet's teaching system), Jakobson existed at the center of choreographic ferment in Russian ballet while firmly upholding the classical purity of its technique.
Jakobson's husband Leonid was a radical choreographer and she an exacting classicist. They upheld Russian dance tradition while diligently working to change it. It is not coincidental that Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova all worked with Leonid Jakobson, and all tasted possibilities of dramatic freedom in his ballets before defecting to the West and its unlimited horizons for personal expression on stage.
After her husband's death in 1975 at age 71, and her subsequent realization that there was no way to stop the dismantling of Choreographic Miniatures, the company that Jakobson had labored all his life to build, she applied to emigrate. Today she lives with her sister, 87-year-old mother and 33-year-old son in San Francisco.
Jakobson's memories offer insights into how Soviet cultural authorities punished people who refuse to play by their rules. "In Russia they are afraid so much that it's very depressing to be an artist there," Jakobson says. "You cannot write what you feel, you cannot say what you think and you cannot paint or make dances (that are honest)."
Her husband was for the 45 years of his career a persistent thorn in the side of Soviet cultural authorities. "Jakobson was a genius," says Makarova, a former Kirov dancer who created lead roles in several Jakobson ballets. "His work was grotesque. It was a piece of art."
"He liked the body to speak with movement," Irina Jakobson agrees. "But the government said he was dangerous, that he made Russian culture terrible."
Her own Jewish heritage and refusal to join the Communist Party cut short her career advancement, she says. "Soon after I started teaching at the (Vaganova) school the director called me into his office and said, 'You are very good, I would like to put you in charge of the teachers but you have two big things against you. Being Jewish you cannot do anything about, but you could at least join the Party.' " Jakobson never did.
Jakobson is a very handsome and intelligent woman, looking far younger than her age and still with the petite proportions of an active dancer. Wearing her long redish brown hair in a neat bun, she favors simple seersucker slacks and blouses in the studio and conservative skirt suits outside.
She strides into class at precisely the moment it is to begin and leaves just as promptly when it is over. She teaches in a no-nonsense manner throughout and leaves it to the meticulously worked progression of her barre-to-center floor exercises to convey her masterfulness as a teacher.
"She's a wonderful teacher, she's really sought after," says Helgi Tomasson, director of San Francisco Ballet. "There are never many really good teachers, so when I was able to convince her to stay with us I was very happy. She brings from the Leningrad School the basic training I want to strengthen the company. I'm not looking to make the school or company Russian-styled. But the clarity and value of what she brings will be one pillar of the school and of the classical vocabulary I'm building in the company."
Ludmila Lopukhova, a former Kirov soloist now with San Francisco Ballet, calls Jakobson's classes "professional and so well-built you never get overtired. They are very hard but they always leave you ready to work some more."
Makarova still drops in for frequent private coaching sessions from Jakobson "Irina has the talent to teach, the eye, the conception, the taste . . . so much. I don't miss the chance to work with Irina," she says. "Anybody who finished the Vaganova School is special, but Irina was Vaganova's own pupil. She finished with Vaganova herself. There are not so many left now."