20th October 2013, via live feed to the cinema from the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow.
Vladimir Vasiliev, the former principal of the Bolshoi Ballet and the creator of the role of Spartacus when this Grigorovich ballet premiered in 1968, was interviewed during one of the intervals. Vasiliev was and still is my hero. Even at the age of 73, standing on a corner of the historic stage of the Bolshoi Theatre being interviewed, Vasiliev commanded the attention of the audience, captivating them with his charisma. He talked with excitement, as though it was only yesterday, of being the character and said that he lived the life of Spartacus whenever he danced the role on stage. His Spartacus was so passionate and tragic and so extremely powerful.
Tonight’s male leads, Mikhail Lobukhin and Vladislav Lantratov did exactly what Vasiliev spoke of; they lived the lives of Spartacus and Crassus for the three hours they were on the stage. Lobukhin and Lantratov were very different from Vladimir Vasiliev and Maris Liepa, who were in the premiere cast of this iconic piece and remain my favourite Spartacus and Crassus, yet they managed to create their own Spartacus and Crassus whilst staying very faithful to the original intention: Spartacus so passionate and energetic and Crassus powerful, noble, arrogant yet charismatic. I was rather glad that neither Lobukhin nor Lantratov appeared to be trying to emulate anyone else’s portrayal of Spartacus or Crassus.
The fact that there are so many wonderful forerunners from which they can and do learn is a priceless asset for the dancers in the Bolshoi company. I have long wondered, however, seeing just how many of its former stars are coaching at the Bolshoi Ballet, whether or not this flow of experience might actually restrict new personalities from emerging. Being coached by such charismatic and talented former dancers, on the one hand, is an opportunity any dancer would do anything to get, but could younger dancers resist copying the great dancers of the former generations? It does seem though, that as well as having been fantastic and charismatic performers, they are influential but inspirational guides who are keen to let the younger dancers explore their own paths and discover their own roles.
Lobukhin, who was trained at the Vaganova Academy, joined the Bolshoi Ballet three years ago. I had not been overly impressed with his Tybalt in Grigorovich’s Romeo and Juliet, and the only other role I have seen him perform was a young agricultural student in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream. I was a little worried that I might be disappointed with him dancing Spartacus, but I shouldn’t have been. His Spartacus was passionate, loving and very moving. In certain ways he was more delicate than some other iconic Spartacus’ I have seen, but this added sensitivity did not diminish the powerfulness of the performance.
Vlad Lantratov was recently promoted to the rank of principal dancer and he lived up to his title very well. Having so far seen him mainly in more gentle and sincere types of role, I was pleasantly surprised that he managed so convincingly to grasp the somewhat manic and arrogant atmosphere of Crassus.
The two male leads have very clear-cut technique and beautiful control, which they both used in order to convey their characters and their emotions. Technique in itself was not the goal for either of them.
The same thing could be said about Svetlana Zakharova, who danced the role of Aegina. She was glamorous, confident and beautifully provocative. She also appeared to be enjoying herself. I liked her more in this role than many others I have seen her dance so far; it seems to have freed her in some way that much of the classical repertoire does not seem to.
Whereas those three dancers seemed to move from their hearts and it was the emotion they conveyed that I felt before thinking about their technique, Anna Nikulina disappointed me in the role of Phrygia, Spartacus’ wife. She looked as though she was just going over a well rehearsed set of movements without knowing why she was doing what she did. This was very unfortunate as the concluding scene of the ballet is Phrygia’s lament over her husband’s death. It used to reduce me to tears when I watched Ekaterina Maximova or Ludmila Semenyaka perform this scene. This time, not only did Nikulina not bring tears to my eyes, she made me miss all the other wonderful dancers who have danced this role.
Grigorovich’s choreography along with Aram Khachaturian’s music makes it impossible not to be swept up in the emotion of this ballet. The dancers, from the leads to the corps de ballet, all seem to have felt it today. As a whole, it was a fantastic production that showed off what the Bolshoi Ballet is all about. Phrygia is a difficult role. Of the four leads she has the most subtle character, but it can be easier to dance a stronger character. Nikulina still may develop into a mature dancer who can do justice to the part of Phrygia.
There was one small change to the choreography as I remembered it; for me this small change made a rather big difference to the experience. A masked Spartacus is dragged out in front of Crassus and his party to fight a fellow gladiator. After a very tense few minutes, the opponent gladiator (wonderfully danced by Denis Savin, whom I would love to see more of as he is a very dramatic and able dancer) is stabbed and dies. In the older productions (as far as I know), when Spartacus removes the opponent’s mask, his eyes are wide open and Spartacus very tenderly closes them. In tonight’s production, his eyes were already closed, although I must admit Savin looked very vulnerable. I always assumed that Spartacus knew this other gladiator personally and that this is the moment he seems to make the decision of rebelling against Crassus and what he embodies: the Roman Empire.