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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Spartacus - Soviet Superman!!!

There are so many ridiculous moments in Yuri Grigorovich's Spartacus that by rights, I should have hated it completely. The choreography for Spartacus and the slaves consists almost entirely of marching (the "goosestep"), leaping on a diagonal, chest-beating and sword-fighting. The choreography for Phyrgia consists entirely of being lifted like a sack of potatoes. The only remotely interesting choreography is for Crassus and Aegina. Crassus brandishes his penis extension (uh, I mean sword) in some truly convoluted ways, and Aegina is asked to shimmy, to lie on the floor and thrust her hips upwards, and then in Act Three, to do a pole dance in which she actually takes the pole and rubs it between her legs and shivers from the orgasm. The score by Aram Khachaturian takes a melody, and then repeats it about 10,000 times more.

Yet by the end of the three hour extravaganza, you had to love the whole thing. The Bolshoi brings such irresistible energy to every leap, every goosestep, every sword fight, that you find yourself clapping just at their exertions. You can see the corps de ballet panting after yet another thundering diagonal leaping sequence onstage, but thirty seconds later, there they are again, doing another diagonal from the opposite end of the stage. The Bolshoi orchestra plays the kitschy score as if it were Mahler -- the conductor himself got a huge standing ovation before the final act. In other words, the ballet might have been a combo of a Cecil B. DeMille epic crossed with pure Soviet schlock, but it is fun!

The four leads in this afternoon's performance exemplified what I call the "Spartacus spirit." Mikhail Lobukhin was originally from the Mariinsky but he completely transformed himself into Bolshoi Soviet Superman. He was beefy, he was strong, he was tireless. In Act Three he drew a huge ovation for lifting Phrygia (Anna Nikulina) over his head with one arm, then circling the entire stage while Nikulina changed positions several times. First she was in the classic curtain drape lift (see below). Then she was sort of in an overhead split. Then she somehow turned her body completely upside down and her legs were in the air as her head was facing the ground. I bet Lobukhin could bench press with the best of the Olympians. As for Nikulina, there were murmurs among the audience that she's one of the Bolshoi's weaker ballerinas, but all I can say is: she certainly knows how to stick her legs in the air while being lifted. She also knows how to catch her foot while being wrapped around Spartacus's shoulders. And really, that's all the role requires.

The "evil" couple of Crassus and Aegina was even more fun. Alexander Volchkov looked like the stereotypical spoiled Roman emperor. I even loved his slightly boyish look -- it made him resemble King Joffrey. But beneath those pretty locks and baby face was so much typical Bolshoi horsepower. He was amazing. Even more stunning was Svetlana Zakharova as Aegina. Zakharova has unusually long limbs, with highly arched feet, and a careful, controlled way of dancing that often leads to her being labeled "cold." However she was absolutely riveting as the Roman courtesan. Her legs and feet became sexual objects. She danced with the full awareness of her own sexiness. She often walked all the way downstage to the footlights, and stood with a pointed foot forward at the audience, and then shimmied. In the Act Three pole dance, a weaker dancer might have looked ridiculous. But she contorted herself around that pole like a Vegas showgirl. It was completely believable that a bunch of slaves started crawling on the ground to grab her legs. She was the definite star of the performance.

But really, it's not the leads that make the Bolshoi special. It's the company of 200, most of whom will never have a chance to ever leave the corps de ballet. Despite the vicious infighting in the company (a company feud resulted in the director Sergei Filin being partially blinded by an acid attack last year), when the Bolshoi steps onstage, they dance with an such energy and passion, and that energy is transmitted across the footlights to the audience. Whether they are waving their fans in Don Quixote or brandishing their swords in Spartacus, they dance every performance as if it were their last. You can't help but be whipped in a frenzy of dance.

After the performance I waited at the stage door and saw many of these dancers carrying huge pieces of luggage as they rushed to the airport. Many of them were scarfing sandwiches. They looked exhausted. Thank you Bolshoi!

The incredible Spartacus, Mikhail Lobukhin

King Joffrey, uh, I mean, Alexander Volchkov (Crassus)

Denis Rodkin, who I unfortunately missed as Spartacus 

The gorgeous prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova


  1. Hi Ivy,

    I saw Spartacus on Friday night with the same cast that you saw on Sunday. I have seen Spartacus before (at the Kennedy Center in 2010).

    I really enjoy reading your reviews on this site and on Ballet Alert (by the way, what happened to all your DVD reviews on Amazon? I miss them).

    I have one nit to pick with your review of Spartacus. I want to point out that Spartacus and the slaves never goose step when they march. Crassus and the Roman soldiers goose step when they march to evoke memories of the German invasion of Russia in World War II. Given that World War II was still fresh in Grigorovich's mind (and his audience's) when he choreographed Spartacus, he had Crassus and the Roman soldiers goose step to make clear that they represent the evil, decadent, bourgeoisie while Spartacus, the slaves, and the shepherds represented the noble proletariat.

    Keep up the great work!


    1. Thanks! I deleted my Amazon reviews because I found out some guy I didn't know was complaining to a Facebook friend about how much he hated me because of my reviews. It was weird.