Irina Jacobson, a Soviet-Russian dancer, teacher and international authority on the staging of the major nineteenth- and twentieth-century Romantic and Classical ballets, is also the former director of Choreographic Miniatures, the St. Petersburg ballet company of her late husband, Leonid Jacobson, the leading iconoclastic Soviet ballet choreographer. A former soloist with the Kirov Ballet, Irina Jacobson was the last protégée of Agrippina Vaganova, the influential teacher at the State Academic Theatre for Opera and Ballet (GATOB, later the Kirov), the woman who systematized the teaching of ballet for the new era of Soviet ballet, and who recognized and inspired Irina Jacobson’s gifts as an exacting and inspired ballet pedagogue.
Irina (Pevzner) Jacobson was born May 31, 1924, in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) Russia, to Dveiza Leya (later Yelizaveta) Gurevitch Pevzner, a 24-year-old bookkeeper from Gomel in Belorussia province, and David Pevzner, a 27-year-old civil engineer from Mogilev, Belorussia. The Pevzners had one other child, Anna Pevzner Klimentenko, born in 1922. Jacobson’s father came from a highly educated family and each of his three brothers and two sisters graduated from a university either in Russia or Germany. He met Jacobson’s mother while a member of the Russian cavalry stationed in Belorussia and after a three-day courtship she returned with him to St. Petersburg. They were well educated Jews—Yelizaveta had a college education in economics—and after they married in 1919, they returned to Pevzner’s home in St. Petersburg. During the Stalinist purges David Pevzner was exiled to prison in Siberia from 1929–1932, an ordeal from which he returned, while several of his relatives did not.
In school in St. Petersburg as an eight-year-old, Irina became a pioneer, the first step toward training for membership in the Communist Party, but she left at the age of twelve and steadfastly refused any further association with either the Comsomol (young Communist party) or the Communist Party, despite continual pressures to join. When they first arrived in St. Petersburg the Pevzners rented a four-room apartment but over time the government moved others into the apartment, until only two rooms remained for the four Pevzners. A famous older ballet critic, Alexander Clayman, moved into one of the Pevzner’s former rooms and became friendly with the family. When David Pevzner was sent into exile, Clayman suggested to Yelizaveta Pevzner that she audition her daughters for the Theater Academy on Theatre Street where, if accepted, the girls could get broadly educated not only in ballet, but also in music and the arts. In 1933 at the age of nine, Irina and her sister Anna auditioned together with several hundred others and were among the twenty accepted into the beginning class of the Leningrad Choreographic School (since renamed GATOB) that year. Since she was already in the second class of regular school Irina had to repeat her first year, but since Anna was two years ahead Yelizaveta did not enroll her in the ballet academy, deciding she would be too old when she finished.
Initially Irina was indifferent to the ballet classes and as a result lacked motivation. Her mother therefore engaged a private tutor, Capitalina Arhipova, who worked with her individually; at the end of five years she was the best in her class. Irina made her debut with the Kirov Ballet at the age of fourteen, dancing as attendant to the princess in The Sleeping Beauty. Then the war came. In 1941, as the German Army advanced on Leningrad, Irina and her partner from the Choreographic School were assigned with an itinerant group of performers to entertain the Russian army at encampments throughout the Baltic. In August, while on the way to a performance in Estonia, the dancers’ bus was engulfed and almost overtaken by soldiers fleeing the advancing Germans. Miraculously the driver succeeded in returning the dancers to Leningrad and the following day, on August 18, 1941, Irina and her family were just in time to be evacuated in freight cars with the entire Kirov Ballet and School to Perm, where they were given a single room for the five of them. For the next three years, until the Kirov returned to Leningrad in 1944, this was their home.
In Perm ballet classes continued in a converted garage that was so cold that when water was sprinkled on the wooden floor during class it immediately froze into a slippery layer of ice as the dancers took class and rehearsed. In late 1943 Irina danced her graduation performance as the top student in her class, performing a Hungarian dance and the entire grand pas from the last act of Raymonda, as well as the lead in Makovets’s The Magic Flute. Vaganova favored Irina for her musicality and keen analytic intelligence and asked her to teach her class when she became too ill to teach in the late 1940s. It was from observing Vaganova that Irina said she learned how to train bodies for strength and yet with a softness in the arms and feet.
In 1944 Irina joined the Kirov Ballet as a corps de ballet member, retiring as a soloist in 1964. The same year that she joined the Kirov, Irina met the brilliant choreographer Leonid Jacobson, who was also working in Perm during the war at the invitation of the Kirov. For Irina it was love at first sight with Jacobson’s deeply musical and richly inventive ballets. “When I saw his work I knew that no matter what he looked like I already loved this man,” Irina said of the profound effect this first viewing of his choreography had on her. They were married in 1953 and that year their son, Nicholas Jacobson, was born. During her years with the Kirov she danced solo roles in all the major ballets in the repertoire, including the pas de trois in Swan Lake, Prince Igor, La Bayadère and Raymonda. She also excelled at humorous character roles, particularly as a young vagabond in her husband’s duet, The Vagabonds, and also as the Jewish wife in his poignant portrait of shtel life, The Jewish Couple. In 1964 Irina entered the Ballet Pedagogical College in Leningrad, completing the course of training to become a teacher in 1966. She was subsequently offered the position of chief instructor of ballet pedagogy on condition that she join the Communist Party, but she refused. Instead she accepted a post as a teacher at the Leningrad Choreographic School (now the St. Petersburg Vaganova Ballet Academy), where she worked until 1970.
In 1970, after years of asking for permission to found his own company, Leonid Jacobson was finally allowed to create his Choreographic Miniatures and Irina immediately began to work in the company as a teacher, ballet master and coach. When Leonid Jacobson died of stomach cancer in 1975, at the age of seventy-one, she served as artistic director of the company from 1975 to 1976. From 1978 to 1979 she worked at the Bolshoi Theater as assistant to Maya Plisetskaya and from 1980 to 1982 she worked as ballet master for Boris Eifman’s company.
In 1982, after three years of waiting, and with assistance from the Council on Soviet Jewry, Irina, her mother and her son were at last granted permission to emigrate to the United States. Since that time Jacobson has taught and coached internationally, serving as ballet master in 1983 for the Amsterdam Ballet, where she also staged her husband’s Rodin cycle. In 1985 Anna Klimentenko, Irina’s sister and former professor and head of the language department in the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences of the USSR in Moscow, joined the family in San Francisco. From 1984 to 1987 Irina worked as ballet master at the Royal Ballet in London and Germany’s Hamburg Ballet, spending six months of each year with each company. From 1987 to 2000 she taught in the school and company of San Francisco Ballet, serving as Associate Teacher to the director, Helgi Tomasson. Since 2000 Jacobson has been in residence at Hamburg Ballet as ballet master, while continuing to guest teach at companies throughout Europe. In 2001 she oversaw the publication in Russian of her husband’s Letters to Noverre, a book of his reflections on ballet in Russia, by the U.S.-based Hermitage Publishers and she co-edited an anthology of essays and letters about him, Dangerous Dances: Leonid Jacobson, Jewish Identity and Russian Ballet. In 2005 Irina Jacobson’s oral history was included in the San Francisco Archives for the Performing Arts Library and Museum.
Ross, Janice. “Jewish Culture and Identity in the Russian Ballet: The Case of Leonid Jacobson.” Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review (Autumn 2000); Idem. “Leonid Jacobson: Free At Last!” Dance Magazine (December 1991): 46–49; Idem. “A New Life for the Dances of a Soviet Master.” The New York Times, March 5, 1989; Idem. “Irina Jakobsen’s Steps to Freedom.” Los Angeles Times, November 8, 1987.