The Bolshoi continued its New York season with a ballet on which they have an even stronger claim than “Don Quixote”: Yuri Grigorovich’s “Spartacus”. Both ballets are showcases for ensemble dancing that the Bolshoi performs with the energy of a pile driver, but the similarities end there.
“Spartacus” is the tale of the leader of a heroic but failed uprising of Roman slaves against their masters. It focuses on two couples: Spartacus and his wife Phrygia, and Crassus, the degenerate leader of the Roman Army, and his concubine Aegina. Behind them the corps de ballet, especially the men, provide a sweeping and powerful backdrop. It’s been a signature work for the Bolshoi since its premiere in 1968 and the performances of its original cast (Vladimir Vasiliev, Yekaterina Maximova, Maris Liepa and Nina Timofeyeva) are the stuff of legend.
This isn’t the first version of the ballet. That was done in 1956 by Leonid Jakobsen for the Kirov. A version for the Bolshoi by Igor Moiseyev was made in 1958. It was not shown on their first tour to the US the following year; it wasn’t presented here until 1962. But here’s an exchange between the Bolshoi’s chief choreographer, Leonid Lavrovsky, and George Balanchine from that first tour. The Bolshoi dancers had been shown rehearsals of “Agon” and been baffled.
[Lavrovsky] “You know, in the Soviet Union work such as yours would be condemned as mere formalism, as inhuman.”
To which Balanchine replied, “Well, I’m certainly not interested in using beautiful dance movement and gesture as merely a caption for some silly story.”
Putting aside the hyperbole in both men’s remarks, the divide between where American and Soviet ballet headed is clear, and if “Agon” is Exhibit A for one side, “Spartacus” is the same for the other.
The corps de ballet in “Spartacus” mostly dances in unison, straight at us in powerful leaps or marches. This is a ballet about combat and rebellion; the corps de ballet and the military battalion corps do not seem far apart. There’s no counterpoint or pure dance—every dance is a pas d’action. The solos the four main characters dance as bridges between scenes are not variations; they’re soliloquies. Grigorovich is not aiming for form, or the meaning in form. This is dance for narrative expression.
It's also socialist realism. The story has obvious resonance to the Left and Grigorovich gives it a nationalist spin as well. The dances for the shepherds and rebels in "Spartacus" have the same bravura, pride and familiarity to their native audience as the dances for heroic partisans of Igor Moiseyev's own folk troupe. Those massed ensembles can whip up a real frenzy. Even the bows in character at the end of each act worked the audience into a state. This is a ballet not of Form, but of Force.
The Bolshoi’s current production still whips up a frenzy and the quartet of main roles were danced with power and conviction, if little concern for form or line. The Bolshoi as a company seems to have an ambivalent relationship with transition steps and only a glancing acquaintance with fifth position. Spartacus’s leaps were with unstretched legs and bent knees, but they were also as high as he could possibly make them.
Yury Klevtsov as Spartacus was the Soviet hero as Everyman. Earnest and powerful, he leapt across the stage with his legs scissoring or pumped Phrygia over his head. Alexander Volchkov as his nemesis Crassus was a fitting opponent; putting priority less on steps than on being as gloating and evil as he could. The role of Phyrgia seems the smallest of the quartet, but that could also be the difficulty of playing the Good Stalwart Heroine whose job in the ballet is to suffer, worry or wait. None of these tasks are particularly interesting to portray on stage, but Anna Antonicheva did them all with long, lovely lines. The plum role for the woman is Aegina, even though she gets lowest billing of the leads. What scheming and glamorous villainess isn’t more interesting on stage than a patient and virtuous heroine? With her glamour poses with one arm cocked overhead like a frieze, the role is also a very distant cousin to another courtesan: “The Prodigal Son’s” Siren. The part gives Maria Allash a chance to show off her huge jump and she sparkles with malevolence as she’s being wanton or betraying the rebels.
If your preference is for form, “Spartacus” can be rough going, but even if you prefer force the ballet can still go right over the top. The bacchanalia in Act III with courtesans shimmying and squadrons of leaping shepherds doing karate chops had me torn; I wasn’t sure whether to be awed or just to giggle. Also, the technique in the ballet feels almost quaint. Whether it’s a good development or not is a matter of debate, but a split leap looks primitive as a display of male virtuosity in our age of triple saut de basques.
Force may have the last laugh over Form. American audiences are showing a preference for the narrative ballet. We're not making new Petipa ballets either, where abstracted dance is a metaphor for the narrative. We're making "Dracula" and "Beauty and The Beast", the American analogue to this type of ballet—the Dansical. If that's the future of American ballet, we' re still waiting for the ballet that can tap into the American psyche with the same success as "Spartacus".