July 31, 2004 -- Royal Opera House, London
There aren’t that many ballets around that concern themselves with real events, even if those events are so many centuries past and shrouded by history that you might be forgiven for thinking them myth or fiction, like King Arthur. Back in the 1950’s and early 60’s there was a popular film genre known as “Sword and Sandal”, quite unique from the more highly regarded “Biblical Epic” Can anyone who lived though those days every forget Steve Reeves as “Hercules Unchained”? Thought not.
Stanley Kubrick’s film version of “Spartacus” was more than a cut above the usual ancient film fare of bronzed Italian extras and curvaceous young woman in revealing dresses. Based on the best selling novel by Howard Fast and with Kirk Douglas in the title role and Lawrence Olivier as Crassus; Spartacus picked up several Oscars in the 1960 awards and continues as a highly regarded film, in fact a “Director’s Cut” version was released shortly before Kubrick’s death. In the same decade Yuri Grigorovitch gave us his version of “Spartacus” and outside of Russia it was not highly regarded at all, but several decades later, it’s still going strong.
Of course Spartacus was an historical figure much admired in the Soviet Union and his name was given to all sorts of things, perhaps most famously to Moscow Spartak Football Club. So no problems there then when it came to getting the famous rebel leader past the notoriously conservative censors at the Ministry of Culture. Two versions of “Spartacus” already existed when Grigorovitch decided to have a go for himself. Ballet history tells us that those versions by Messerer and Yacobson were both failures but the video snippets of the Yacobson version that I’ve seen suggest otherwise. In fact the pas de deux from the Yacobson still appears to be regarded as viable and is performed as a concert number by Kirov dancers to this day.
When the ballet first appeared in the UK, the critics generally ridiculed it, with Khatachurian’s score getting a kicking for being tuneful and popular. In fact I’ve noticed that this time around there are still a couple of critics being a bit sniffy about the score, which is quite unfair to music that begs to be danced to. If anything bothers me about the ballet it’s the actual choreography; it is frankly simplistic and repetitious: The Romans predictably goose step and Spartacus repeats his leaps through diagonal lines of warriors again and again. “Spartacus” also repeats Grigorovitch’s formula of having a contrasting “good girl” and a “bad girl” in the cast, the former soft and clinging and the latter frankly sexual (similar pairs of women appear in “The Stone Flower”, “Legend of Love” and “The Golden Age”). In spite of those choreographic shortcomings some sections look inspired; the use of the male corps de ballet throughout and the final defeat and death of the hero can still impress.
In the beginning any failings that existed within the ballet were obliterated by the two contrasting dancers that originally alternated in the role of Spartacus: Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Lavrovsky. Vasiliev was the doomed almost poetic hero of antiquity whereas Lavrovsky was a killing machine gladiator fighting for justice. And then there was the incomparable Maris Liepa as Crassus. He was dubbed “the Lawrence Olivier of the ballet” dancing the role that Olivier had played in the film. Totally mad and devastatingly attractive he was the perfect adversary for the slave leader. Those three interpretations have never been bettered and I doubt if they ever will. But unlike many highly regarded ballets that fall apart when the original casts cease to dance them, “Spartacus” still manages to electrify an audience, even with an inferior cast. The ballet may be bombastic and unsubtle but the theme of good fighting against evil can still strike a chord in all but the most jaded of hearts and even the champagne swigging corporate audience at Covent Garden is able to respond with enthusiasm as the mass ranks of Bolshoi males leap from the ground in perfect unison, every single one the same height in the air as the man next to him.
In the title role Yuri Klevtsov gave a good account of himself and even though his elevation wasn’t that impressive, he was still able to successfully come to terms with the exhausting virtuoso steps. Klevtsov made his own mark on the ballet though with a gesture I had never seen before: as the Roman soldiers surround the vanquished Spartacus, he throws down his swords not as a gesture of defeat, but as an act of defiance, as if to say “Come on then, kill an unarmed man”. As his faithful wife Phrygia, the beautiful Inna Petrova melted into Klevtsov’s arms in their duets and bore her loss with noble dignity at the end when she lays Spartacus’s shield upon his dead body.
As the leading Romans, Vladimir Neporozhny and Maria Allash didn’t make a vintage couple, as he didn’t convince as a power crazed despot and she appears far too nice as his evil mistress. Once again it was the corps that stole the honours, whether as slaves, Romans, shepherds or patricians all were magnificent.
Generations of critics may
carp over this ballet, but it certainly has staying power.
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