Spartacus, Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, July 2010

A revolt by slaves against their Roman overlords is the theme for this ballet by Yuri Grigorovich, based on real events, but more on that later. There are four principal protagonists: Spartacus and his lover Phrygia against the Roman general Crassus and his lover Aegina. Crassus and Aegina were danced by Alexander Volchkov and Maria Allash, the same couple I saw three years ago at the London Coliseum. Volchkov is very strong — he gives a magnificent portrayal — and although she got off to a weak start, as did many members of the corps in Act I, things warmed up later and Acts II and III were powerfully danced by everyone.

Vasiliev as Spartacus, Bolshoi Theatre photo by Damir Yusupov

What really made it memorable, however, was Ivan Vasiliev as Spartacus. He was phenomenal. This is a ballet that gives us stage-devouring leaps and extraordinary lifts, performed to perfection by Vasiliev, with Nina Kaptsova as a captivating Phrygia, and their musicality made their performance a sublime experience. The brilliance of his dancing was breathtaking. The final tableau, when his body is retrieved from the battlefield, where he has been ‘crucified’ on the spears of the Romans, is a moment for her to show her grief, which she did well. No happy ending here, but what was Grigorovich thinking when he created this ballet in 1968, the year the Soviet army crushed the Prague Spring? Who represents the Soviet State: the brave Thracian slaves who rebel, or the fascist leaders of Rome? Grigorovich seems to have been sailing very close to the wind.

As for the real Spartacus, he lived about 120–70 BCE and was at one time a Roman auxiliary soldier, later sold into slavery and made a gladiator. The major revolt he helped to lead turned into the Third Servile War, and although Spartacus and his army won victories against the Roman forces, they were eventually defeated by Marcus Crassus, whose brutal leadership led him to decimate some of his own forces. In his victory over Spartacus, he captured 6,000 of his army of slaves and crucified them all on the Appian Way. No orders were given to take them down and they remained a stark reminder for years.

In this dramatic rendering of the story the orchestra under Pavel Sorokin played Khachaturian’s rambunctious score with evident enthusiasm, yielding art rather than bombast except at the beginning when the sound from the overture and parts of Act I was deafening, at least from the Amphitheatre. But they settled down later, and there were lovely moments of calm and tranquillity, as well as thunder. The costume designs by Simon Virsaladze are wonderful, and the lighting excellent. This is a fine start to the Bolshoi’s three-week season here, and Spartacus will have four more performances, the last two on 31st July.

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