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Bolshoi Ballet - 'Spartacus'

by David Mead

March 28, 2006 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, England

The Bolshoi Ballet rolled into Birmingham this week on their first visit to the city in seventeen years. Grigorovich’s “Spartacus” is certainly ballet on an epic scale and makes full use of the considerable size and power of the company. It tells the story of Spartacus -- captured after the fall of Thrace to the Roman legions -- his subjugation into slavery, escape, uprising and ultimate death as the rebellion fails. Or rather it doesn’t - and that is one of the ballet’s problems. It opts instead for a series of mostly ensemble scenes with little in the way of connecting action, making it seem rather disjointed.

Don’t get me wrong, the dancers were very good and certainly threw themselves wholeheartedly into the choreography, as did the orchestra with Aram Khachaturian’s stirring score. But while the spectacular ensemble dances are startlingly effective when you first see them, they do start to wear a little. You can have too much of a good thing and they come at you non-stop. It’s like being hit by a wave of energy.  Then just as you are staggering to your feet along comes the next, and the next, and the next.

The rawness and power was there for all to see, especially from Dmitri Belogolovtsev as Spartacus. In his first appearance, his anger at being chained was there for all to see, but you also felt he was always fighting a losing battle. This was only ever going to have a tragic ending.

“Spartacus” is not a ballet for subtlety, but most of the dancers managed to show an incredible lack of personal emotion between each other. Where was the acting? You couldn’t help wondering what Irek Mukhamedov -- who was himself a famous Spartacus and who was in the audience that night -- would have made of it. I know the choreography doesn’t give a great deal of time for it anyway, but you might have thought Spartacus would have shown some sort of personal hatred towards his captor Crassus, or come to that, love for his sweetheart Phrygia, stunningly danced by Anna Antonicheva.

At the beginning of Act III, in one of the few reflective moments of the ballet, Phrygia demonstrates her fears for what is to come, first in a solo and then with Spartacus. From her there was a sense of fear and emotion, even love for him, but from him there was nothing. The steps and lifts were executed wonderfully, but that was as far as it went.

Of the other leading dancers, Maria Allash, as the courtesan, Aegina, came across as very strong-willed, even scheming, which I guess sums up the character pretty well. More than a shade of the Siren in Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son,” in dress and movement as well as characterization, I thought. While Vladimir Neporozhny as Crassus was competent, it was rather like watching a blank canvas. This is supposed to be a character we hate, an anti-hero, but there was nothing. He was totally devoid of emotion. Then again, what do you expect from part of the Empire’s killing machine?

The best is saved for the end. Spartacus’ death – he is speared by the Roman soldiers - is dramatic enough, but it is followed by a beautifully conceived requiem. The black-clad grieving figure of Phrygia is lifted high, Spartacus’ body is passed up to her, and she lays his shield on his chest before looking down and sorrowfully contemplating the scene. For once, the ballet is very emotional and stunningly lit.

Powerful, dramatic, virtuosic, heroic and on a grand scale, yes. Even exciting at first. But psychologically deep, with personal relationships? Sorry, but no. “Spartacus” is worth seeing for the sheer raw power of the male dancers, and if you’ve never seen it before, it’s definitely worth going. The audience certainly loved it and I’m sure some found it very emotional but I’m afraid it left me rather cold.

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