March 13, 2016
This film of a 2013 performance of Spartacus is almost as good as being there. The camera work is excellent, at one point panning across the foils as dancers enter downstage, momentarily giving the impression that one is also running on. The views into the pit are exciting too, with Pavel Sorokin leading a subtle rendition of what is surely the greatest modern ballet score. The rich reverberations of bass clarinet, bass flute, cor anglais and saxophone (Khachaturian and Schostakovich found the best place for saxophones – moody and melancholy amongst the woodwinds).
Mikhail Lobukhin as the eponymous hero is a powerful dancer, executing the famous one-handed lifts, not only with apparent ease, but seemingly frozen in time. Vladislav Lantranov (Crassus) knocks off temps de poisson after temps de poisson, by Act III almost folding in half – the wrong way. Anna Nikulina is a warm, sweet Phrygia, very much in the mode of the great Ekaterina Maximova, evoking huge dignity in the mourning scene at the end. Svetlana Zakharova sizzles as Aegina. Her razor-sharp movements and writhing cunning are compelling. Detractors complain that this production is a camp evocation of Hollywood biblical epics. This cast understand how erroneous this interpretation is and perform with utter integrity.
From the premiere in 1968, Spartacus has been judged through the lens of the Cold War. Mice, glass and nails were flung on stage by Zionist protestors in London in the early 1970s and one had to run the gauntlet of demonstrators of various denominations just to enter the foyer. Now, just short of half a century later, this ballet, continuously in the repertoire of the Bolshoi, can be seen for the profound and great work that it is. In 1968, it was a very daring production for the Bolshoi and, rather than be viewed against the backdrop of US/Soviet relations, should be regarded as it was: contemporaneous with the Vietnam war, Paris student revolts, waves of strikes in the UK and youth tuning in and dropping out in the US. Grigorovich took the Bolshoi out to the world. He was never insular but understood how to succeed within his milieu. Thus his production has become, amongst the many, the most popular and effective.
Spartacus, in all his myth and mystery, has served as a beacon of hope for the oppressed throughout the centuries. In 2016 the world is still plagued with inequality, slavery, oppression and poverty not to mention wars and political crises. It is this that makes this ballet as heart-rending as ever, its technical demands always subsumed into the dramatic necessities.
Khachaturian’s full score runs to about four hours. In cutting it to suit his nine monologues and ensemble sections, Grigorovich destroyed some of the leit motif. But the hints are there for those who listen. The Egyptian dance and Thracian dance, now used respectively in the slave market in Act I and the shepherds’ section in Act II describe two of the many races that Spartacus (and indeed the Romans) united in one cause. Not only rural shepherds, but the urban poor flocked to his army as he traversed Italy.
Again some of the detail is melded into the two couples who symbolise their respective regimes. How chilling those brandishing of fasces, goose stepping and Roman salutes must have been just a couple of decades after Hitler almost got to Moscow.
As the interval interview pointed out, a few companies have mounted other productions but there are simply no others that have the training and capability of dancing this massive work, not least as it is a celebration of the male in dance and demands much of every single dancer/actor on stage.
It is high time that we had the opportunity to see Spartacus in London but, in the meantime, this terrific recording will tide us over.
There is one more ballet to come in this year’s Bolshoi Ballet cinema season, Don Quixote on Sunday April 10. Visit www.bolshoiballettickets.co.uk for details.
The Bolshoi Ballet are at The Royal Opera House this summer (www.roh.org.uk), but sadly, no Spartacus.