Royal Theatre Carré
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
25 July 2008
by Marc Haegeman
copyright 2008 by Marc Haegeman
By chance audiences in Amsterdam's Royal Carré Theater were able to attend two debuts in one of the Bolshoi Ballet's most legendary roles, Yuri Grigorovich's “Spartacus.” First came Ivan Vasiliev, the company's 19-year old wunderkind, who had so far only danced the 1st Act in a special performance in Moscow a few weeks earlier, followed the next day by the much lesser known corps de ballet artist Egor Khromushin, whose debut had to be advanced because of an injured Dmitry Belogolovtsev.
Ivan Vasiliev is the youngest Spartacus in the Bolshoi's history. He graduated from the Belorussian Ballet School and is now dancing his second season with the Bolshoi. To a certain extent, with his short, stocky, strongly muscular appearance, he takes the role back to its creation days (although none of the earlier generation was as athletic as he is), yet by his youthfulness, not completely concealed by a beginning beard, he also gives the ballet that much-needed new image. Vasiliev prepared the role with Yuri Vladimirov and from a purely technical point of view, this must be one of the best “Spartacus” ever. He made the ballet almost look easy. His speed, his effortless, hovering leaps, his swift, superbly controlled turns, solidly on the ground or in the air, which had the audience gasping and bursting out in spontaneous applause on several occasions, were some of the most exciting moments in ballet one can see. We know from his daredevil “Don Quixote” and “Flames of Paris” performances that this guy knows no fear. Especially his first jumps in the closing scenes of Act I completely took you by surprise, even when you knew they would come. This leap for freedom was a physical explosion. The duets with the petite Nina Kaptsova, who is by figure for the moment the only Phrygia suitable for Vasiliev, were appropriately tender and the hairy lifts generally came off fluently and effortlessly, except for a bit of adjusting in the Act 3 pas de deux.
Vasiliev's physical strength is quite phenomenal and there were no signs of fatigue or loss of energy when the end was near. This Spartacus still could have defeated the Roman legions single-handed. But, it might be argued, perhaps he didn't win after all because he didn't seem to have a clear purpose yet. He was leading a revolt, but for or against what? Here is of course where Vasiliev needs to work: the character. His expressions of wide-eyed enthusiasm, or anger and suffering were a bit samey during the ballet and could have been more focused. He still looked more a juvenile rebel without a cause, kicking against the adult establishment, instead of consciously fighting for his and the freedom of his fellow slaves.
Thinking of the recent “Spartacus” of Carlos Acosta, in his case we had the emotion spilling all over the theatre down to the very last row, by his dancing, but at least as much by his utterly complete identification with his character, making it crystal clear that this man understood what fighting for freedom means - Vasiliev doesn't, as yet. Vasiliev astounds by the sheer power of his dancing and his youthful vigour gives the ballet a fresh look, but unlike Acosta he doesn't move you by his quest and ultimate failure. That being said, for a debut in one of the most taxing male roles of the Bolshoi repertory, it was a fantastic night out one cannot experience too often, deserving all the loud and long cheers from the audience.
Egor Khromushin danced a fine debut as well. A graduate from the Moscow Choreographic Institute he joined the company in 2003. So far he was mainly seen in solo parts like the 3rd movement of Balanchine’s “Symphony in C”, “Concerto Barocco”, and had been selected by Alexei Ratmansky as one of the dancers in his “Jeu de Cartes.” His biggest engagement as yet was Ferkhad, the leading role in Grigorovich’s “Legend of Love.” More of a traditional dancer, also taller, he doesn't possess the technical wizardry of Vasiliev, nor his stamina, but he cleared all the ballet's hurdles with success and one could see him grow more confident along the evening. Well supported by Anna Antonicheva’s Phrygia in the duets, at best Khromushin cut a hero one cared for, even if he too still needs to find which way to go with the character. Although his first attempt was bound to be overshadowed by Vasiliev’s powerhouse performance, it still represented a huge break on which he hopefully will get the chance to capitalize.
“Spartacus” has been the Bolshoi's problem child for many years, since Irek Mukhamedov stopped dancing it. The two leading male roles presented quite an obstacle to the newest generations of Moscow dancers. None of the consecutive performers of Grigorovich's Thracian hero, nor of the Roman general Crassus, were truly memorable or original and even the best attempts seen from Yuri Klevtsov and Dmitry Belogolovtsev couldn't help the ballet and the main character from looking worn out. Recently though, the tide changed with the arrival of a couple of guest artists. Last year the Cuban Royal Ballet principal Carlos Acosta took the ballet to new unsuspected heights, while Denis Matvienko guesting from Kiev similarly surprised with his powerful interpretations. Now with Ivan Vasiliev the Bolshoi has a tremendous in-house Spartacus for the future.
Likewise, Crassus seems revitalized with Alexander Volchkov who has really grown into the role. His dancing is now a lot more impressive in scale and he finally controls that much needed sense of abandon. His characterisation seems to grow better every time I see him.
The female roles of Phrygia and Aegina are still in safe hands with the current crop of Bolshoi ballerinas. For what it takes, Anna Antonicheva, Svetlana Lunkina and Nina Kaptsova are excellent Phrygia's. It was good to see the veteran ballerina Nadezhda Gracheva back as Aegina, a role which she started dancing in the mid-1990’s and is indeed a lot more fun than Phrygia. Maria Alexandrova also has made the character her own and her full-blooded, dynamic portrayal was a joy from start to end. The greatest surprise, though, came from a newcomer to the role, Svetlana Zakharova. Zakharova looked totally transformed and seemed to relish every minute on stage as kittenish, dangerously scheming courtesan. She danced it extremely well, with her well-known precision and focus, while her duets with Volchkov crackled with fire and were sometimes deliciously over the top, but then again, what more can one ask of such a role? It is often said that these Grigorovich characters are one-dimensional, but one really starts to doubt such statements when true personalities sink their teeth in them.
Photos, both by Marc Haegeman, of Ivan Vasiliev and Svetlana Zakharova.