On Tuesday night we saw "Spartacus" live for the first time. Our previous experience of this work has been limited to the video starring Mukhamedov and Bessmertnova with the wonderful Maria Bylova as Aegina. Quite a lot for the present Bolshoi company to live up to, and they didn't disappoint.
It's quite difficult to say why this ballet should be so enjoyable. Unless one is familiar with the intricacies of the plot, the narrative is not very clear and the storyline is reduced to a simplistic tale of doomed anti-fascist heroism. The choreography isn't really up to much, apart from some heart-stoppingly dangerous leaping and lifting, especially in the pas de deux for the two main couples. The corps are generally limited to endless variations on a theme of goosestepping enlivened by a great deal of brandishing of swords, standards and shepherds' crooks. It's best not to dwell on the wigs or indeed the haircuts or the costumes or the body-paint coming off on tights and tunics, showing us exactly where partners' hands have been, and the acting is amply covered by the term "general pained expression". And although I've never been to an orgy, I would certainly expect a bit more action than was evident in Act II as Aegina corrupts Spartacus's supporters with wine, women and dance.
So what are the up sides? Well, the sets are quite good and the lowering of a backdrop in the form of a suspended awning to mark the change from scene to "monologue" to new scene is an effective device, although it's easy to lose count of the times this happened - 12 scenes and 9 monologues are a lot to cram into three acts. The corps - both male and female - are breathtakingly well matched for height and build and although this may seem a superficial point there is something quite stirring about the spectacle of a large number of similar-looking human beings performing as one, as the Kirov have proved time and time again. At one point there were 30 men on stage all striding and gesticulating in unison. Imagine the Royal Ballet attempting that! Then there are the tableaux. Normally I'm not too keen on prolonged position-holding, but the Bolshoi have really got it down to a fine art - pleasing to the eye and even emotionally engaging at times, especially in the final scenes of Spartacus's death and Phrygia's grief. Despite its lack of subtlety, the Khachaturian score has to go down as a plus, too. It certainly carries the listener onward and upward, as it were, and the slow build-up to the "big tune" is so evocative that I half expected the audience to join in with a group rendition of the melody. By the way, you know the definition of a highbrow is someone who can listen to the William Tell overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger? Well, I offer an alternative: a highbrow is someone who can listen to Spartacus without thinking of the Onedin Line.
The standard of dancing last night was excellent. The height of the jumps, the softness of the landings, the precision of placing of feet and arms, the confidence of the lifting and sureness of dismounting were all a joy to behold. Andrei Uvarov as Spartacus seemed to fly, restrained only by the confines of the Coliseum Stage. He is perhaps not powerful enough a personality to carry off the role totally convincingly (or perhaps visions of Mukhamedov on video are too pervasive) but he sure can dance. Inna Petrova as Phrygia looked the part - an indomitable spirit within a frail and suffering body - and danced like a dream. She above all made me long for some really refined choreography. I should love to see her as Giselle some time. I was rather unconvinced by Maria Allash as Aegina at first: she had a touch of The Good Life's Margot about her - priggish imperiousness - but in Acts II and III she went off like a rocket - what a bravura display of virtuoso nastiness. In the rather limp orgy scene, only she was convincing, doing things with a vineleaf-entwined staff which really shouldn't be seen before the watershed. Great stuff. I'm embarrassed to have to admit to mislaying the cast list, so have to rely on the box office and Bolshoi advance listings, both of which assure me that Crassus was danced by Dmitri Rykhlov, who according to the programme is a member of the corps de ballet. If this is true, then he deserves immediate promotion. Built along Irek lines, he was the only dancer on stage unburdened by tights and he leaped about in his Roman soldier's tunic like a man possessed - no doubt in anyone's mind but that he was the baddy. His first spectacular salvo of jetes, brises and scissors had the audience gasping, perhaps subconsciously waiting for the leaden thump of landing. But the leaden thump never came - how is it possible for such a powerfully built body to land from a great height without being heard?
But I suppose the main reason for Spartacus's success is the sheer scale of the spectacle. It sweeps the audience along, submerging the dubious production values and hackneyed political sub-text in a wave of euphoria towards the sad but inspirational climax in which we witness the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and oppression. A feel-good experience enhanced by the obvious enjoyment of the dancers. This really is their showcase work and they let us know it in spades.