This is not, strictly speaking, a travel post. I went to the movies near home recently to see a ballet but enjoyed the broadcast so much I decided to blog about it. See… my two favorite performance disciplines are live theatre and the ballet. This was both, the Bolshoi Ballet performance of Spartacus broadcast live via satellite from their home theatre in Moscow. OMG!
This ballet has been around since 1968 but somehow I’d managed never to come across it before. Perhaps the Bolshoi holds performance copyright or something. If so, satellite broadcast is the only way to see it other than, say, DVD – assuming it’s available. It has been a staple of the Bolshoi repertoire every year since and, now that I’ve seen it, it ranks near the top with other superb ballet stories, along with Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and Le Corsaire. My favorites are those with the most exciting (and, of course, physical) male roles which requires me to mention my all-time favorite – Rudolf Nureyev – in pretty much anything he ever did, including a surprising (non-ballet) turn as the King of Siam in a traditional 1989 production of The King and I. Doesn’t matter that Nureyev danced with the Kirov Ballet (rather than the Bolshoi) until he defected in 1961. He was an ethnic Tatar/Cossack with a personality demanding attention. What I mean is, both ballet companies tap into the same well of talent, passion and – for that part of the world – ethnic type which generates huge amounts of strength, fire and passion. Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union in 1961, long before Spartacus had been created, let alone performed, so I don’t know if he ever danced the role but, man, if not, we all missed out!
Anyway, back to the topic at hand – the Bolshoi’s 2016 Spartacus. It’s an ancient tale of Imperial Rome with blood and gore, guts and glory, revenge, love and sex – all the Roman vices, if not virtues. Lots more people know the story from film (1960 starring Kirk Douglas – OK, so I’m dating myself) and TV (2010-2013 on cable TV) than from the ballet, I’m sure. Enjoyable as these other renderings are, they can’t compare to this production by the Bolshoi with Aram Khatchaturyan’s music and choreography by Yuri Grigorovich. All these art forms demand suspension of disbelief but I think ballet exercises the imagination in a way that spoken or sung media doesn’t and that’s the magic for me.
The images here are from an Italian source, as is the trailer link farther down the page.
The story is epic, the staging monumental even though spare – this is ballet, not opera, after all. Dancers need SPACE. The vertical space at the Moscow State Theatre seems to go up and up forever; it demands dancers who can fill the air with their presence else they’d seem like ants scurrying about a tiny hill. Mikhail Lobikhin dances Spartacus with gobs and gobs of strength, ferocity and bravado, devouring the gigantic stage in his solos with Nureyev-like leaps – a feat no other dancer has ever duplicated, in my humble opinion – though Lobikhin comes pretty close at times.
Crassus, Emperor of Rome, captor of Spartacus et. al. and so the pre-eminent baddie, is danced by Vladislav Lantratov – cruel, arrogant, completely self-confident – until Spartacus bests him in single combat and then (horrors!) spares him. In addition to a terrific makeup job, he has the perfect Roman profile – strong chin, classic nose and cropped hair in tight ringlets completely replicating the faces you see on Roman coins and statues and golden military dress that might have been stolen from Mordred in Excalibur.
One of the biggest difference between Spartacus and other ballets is the stage time given to the large male corps de ballet. Sure, there are female leads and bunches of girls* as prisoners and whores but it’s the boys* who really carry the tale. Some scenes and bits of the choreography even reminded me of the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story which were lifted and tweaked from the Montagues and Capulets of Romeo and Juliet, of course. * Note – in the ballet world, the terms are girls and boys. There are other, more familiar terms such as dancer for males and ballerina for females; maybe these other words are simply considered less insulting (more PC?) to outsiders.
The Bolshoi broadcasts are introduced from the stage by Katerina Novikova, the chic woman who heads up the Bolshoi’s Press Office. Her comments are delivered in Russian, French and English. This time, she also conducted interviews during the intervals with Vladimir Vasiliev, the originator of the Spartacus role in 1968 (and a contemporary of Nureyev) and a woman named Aberkhaeva whose notability I missed since I was making notes on things for this post. Can’t Google her, either – maybe I spelled her name wrong?
Stories from the interviews – Vasiliev said the original idea was to have the boys who played Spartacus and Crassus swap roles on different nights but after opening night, the public’s imagination was imprinted with the casting so they weren’t able to exchange parts. He echoed a thought I’ve heard from lots of performers that playing the bad guy is lots more fun than being the good guy. Aberkhaeva told a story about the 1968 Soviet censors identifying scenes in the ballet that could not be presented – too sexy, too provocative, too whatever. Choreographer Grigorovich told his dancers to cut the ‘offending’ scenes for opening night but dance everything as rehearsed for all subsequent performances. Gotta love that!
Tracking down representative videos online is complicated. There are trailers and individual scenes from this production, most too short to do the ballet justice. So far, the best one is a less-than-one-minute trailer for this production. I watched many of the others but this 2016 production has a life and a passion that surpasses all the others you will find online.
A couple of side notes – watching dancers milling about in the background during the interviews. Most were wearing sweatpants or sweaters to keep from tightening up but one guy was wearing a teddy bear mascot/pajama-type costume that looked hilarious though I’m sure it kept him toasty from head to toe. Crassus strutted casually around in his bright red UGGs. The scrim that separated upstage from down allowed upstage to stay dark until the lights were brought up on tableaux of figures that would come to life in the next scene. The scrim was raised to form a giant basket rather than being hauled up completely out of sight. Normally, this would just be an interesting bit of scene design (a subject I studied and participated in at university) but what made me notice it was an identical net arranged in exactly the same way back in October, in Prague. I was there to experience that city’s Sound and Light festival called Signal Fest. This magical fishnet hung in the air outside the Rudolfinum concert hall and changed colors projected on it from behind. A minor artistic connection to another medium.