If there's such a thing as a "guy's ballet," Spartacus is it. Sure, there are women in the cast, but the focus is on men and on manly things, and it's no surprise that a series of popular travel guides for gay men also is named "Spartacus." (One of the most heart-wrenching moments in the ballet is when Spartacus is made to kill a fellow slave in gladiatorial combat for the amusement of the Roman upper crust, and then cries over his friend's fresh corpse.)
This production was filmed live at the Bolshoi in 1990 by a Japanese crew. The original scenario by Nikolai Volkov presented the title character as a Christ-like figure, down to his betrayal by Harmodius, one of his followers. In 1968, choreographer Yuri Grigorovich made several changes to Volkov's scenario, including the removal of Harmodius. Under his direction, dance (not pantomime) regained the upper hand, and the ballet gained greater focus as the contrast between the "pure" slaves and the "decadent" Romans was emphasized. No doubt this pleased Soviet leaders of the time, and I am sure the point was not lost on them when the Roman soldiers marched a goose-step. Each of the four main characters was given several psychological dance "monologues" in front of a black curtain; these monologues also allowed unobtrusive scene changes. Khachaturian's very long score was cut, and many of its numbers were moved and rearranged. Four acts became three. To my mind, these changes were not a bad thing, but if viewers are looking for Spartacus in its original form (about four hours long!), they will be disappointed by the Grigorovich production.
The dancing, with an emphasis on athleticism, is quite spectacular. Crassus is the first main character to appear, and Aleksandr Vetrov immediately establishes the character of the arrogant general with a display of icy-cold gymnastics. Aegina, his mistress, also is danced with aptly frigid precision by Maria Bilova. The highlight of her performance comes in Act 3, when she distracts the would-be rebellious slaves with a very suggestive hoochie-koochie dance. Although no less proud than Aegina, Phrygia, the beloved of Spartacus, is characterized as warm and sincere. In her duets with Spartacus, she frequently is carried, sometimes over the hero's head! The other telling pose has her kneeling at his feet and holding his thigh. (Imagine a Frank Frazetta painting.) In the title-role, the charismatic Irek Mukhamedov tempers his athleticism with true passion. (Who wouldn't follow a man like this to the brink of the grave?) Like Vetrov, he executes chains of astonishing leaps without even looking winded. The Bolshoi corps lives up to its reputation here, and the sets and costumes are excellently done. Zhuraitis keeps things moving in the pit and soft-pedals the bombast, of which there is plenty in this score. (It is about as authentically Roman as Roman Polanski.) Because this is a live performance, there are occasional flubbed notes from the winds. The sound quality is top-drawer. The video quality is less fine; director Shuji Fujii favors wide shots of all or most of the stage, and so what we don't get to see are the dancers' facial expressions, which remain indistinct much of the time. Still, this is a ballet and not a play, so at least Fujii has his priorities in the right place.
If you want a muscle-bound evening enjoying a ballet at home, the Bolshoi's Spartacus will do nicely.
Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle