The choreographer Arkady Obrant was born in Gomel in 1906, in a Jewish family. He received a musical education, learning to play the piano and attending a local music school. Obrant later moved to Voronezh, where he completed a musical high school. He continued his education in Leningrad, enrolling in the Pyotr Lesgaft State Institute of Physical Education. After graduating from it, he taught rhythmics to children. In 1937, he began to attend ballet-master courses at the Leningrad School of Choreography.
In the late 1930s, the famed Soviet composer Isaak Dunayevsky hired Arkady Obrant to work as the choreographer of the Children's Song and Dance Ensemble at the Palace of Pioneers in Leningrad. This was Arkady's full-time job until the outbreak of the Soviet-German War.
Following the Nazi invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, Arkady Obrant volunteered for frontline service. He took part in combat on the approaches to Leningrad, and was wounded. In the spring of 1942, Obrant became director of the group of the Army Dance Ensemble. It was hard to find qualified dancers among the troops. This led to the idea of creating a dance group out of Obrant's former students.
Arkady Obrant returned to Leningrad to locate these students. By that time, the city had been under siege for more than half a year, and its residents were emaciated and exhausted. Not all the students responded to his call to create an ensemble, and many of them could not leave their families.
Originally, the ensemble was to consist of nine dancers, but later this number was increased to 18. After brief rehearsals at a local school, the group had its first performance in the frontline settlement of Rybatskoye (which has since become part of St. Petersburg), appearing before the medical personnel. The children were so weakened that they had to be sent to a hospital to recuperate. After their rehabilitation, a children's dance ensemble was established under Arkady Obrant's leadership.
The ensemble had to perform in frontline conditions, often several times a day. Occasionally, the dancers held their performances on the very front lines, to raise the spirit and morale of the troops.
The repertoire of the group consisted of both military and popular dance routines, and it was an eclectic, multiethnic mix, including Georgian, Tatar, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Roma dances. Their most famous and beloved routine was Tachanka, with music by Konstantin Listov and lyrics by Mikhail Ruderman.
Over a period of 3.5 years, from the establishment of the group until its demobilization, the dancers gave more than 3000 performances. They occasionally came under enemy fire. Thus, one ballerina was seriously wounded in the leg, and had to give up her stage career for good.
The ensemble became popular. In 1944, it performed in Moscow, in the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions, and later in the Georgievsky Hall of the Kremlin and on the stage of the Red Army Theater. On Victory Day, May 9, 1945, the group danced in the Palace Square in Leningrad.
In the course of the war, Arkady Obrant was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, 2nd Class, as well as medals.
After the war, a Youth Ensemble was created on the basis of this group, and it continued to perform under Obrant's direction.
The Ensemble's performances were accompanied by a jazz orchestra, and this had a disastrous effect on the fortunes of the Ensemble. In 1958 – with the campaign against "bourgeois influences in the arts" in full swing, and jazz music being frowned upon by the Soviet authorities – the Ensemble was disbanded.
In those years, Arkady Obrant was appointed director of the dance group of the Leningrad concert.
In 1970, he published a book of memoirs titled They Were Raised by the Front. In 1979, the author Yury Yakovlev used these memoirs as the basis for his book The Ballerina of the Political Department, which told, inter alia, about the girl who had been wounded. He also wrote the script for the film We Looked Death in the Face, which came out a year later, and was a fictionalized retelling of the creation of Obrant's ensemble during the war. However, Arkady Obrant was not to see either Yakovlev's book or the film. He died in Leningrad in 1974.
In 2002, one of the asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter was named in honor of Arkady Obrant and his frontline ensemble.