The Bolshoi Ballet
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C. 20010
February 16, 2010
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2010 by Alexandra Tomalonis
There aren't many ballets with war, or political revolution, as their subject, and even fewer that glorify war. There is August Bournonville's "Valdemar," nearly 200 years ago, with battle scenes so realistic that it is said generals studied them, but that's about it. You'd have to go back to the 18th century to see men dancing in military formations. And then there's Yuri Grigorovich's "Spartacus," once the calling card of the Bolshoi Ballet during the late 1960s and '70s. The full ballet was last danced here in 1974. The second act served as the centerpiece of one of those wonderful Highlights Programs in the 1980s, and the work looked down at heel. It seemed of its time -- the Cold War -- and its time had passed.
I don't know if this is a comment on the state of relations between Russia and the United States,* but "Spartacus" is back as a living, breathing work. When it was created in 1968, it was a commercial for state power. The heroes of the ballet are slaves-turned-soldiers, fighting their Roman captors -- fighting for their lives, their honor, and their future -- and, when the ballet was new, it was not only the company's calling card, but that of the Soviet state as well. If this is the way our dancers dance, it seemed to be saying, would you really want to take on our army? But there was another way to view the ballet. "Spartacus" also gave silent voice to anyone who believed that it indeed would be worthwhile to rise up against a repressive regime, even if one were to lose.
Whatever one's politics or aesthetics, the sheer power of the ballet works. Tuesday night, when "Spartacus," the 21-year-old Ivan Vasiliev, soared across the stage in three enormous, powerful jetés, the audience roared; he had the house from that moment. If there had been recruiting tables in the lobby at intermission, I think most of the audience would have signed up for whatever cause he espoused.
"Spartacus" was made for Vladimir Vasiliev (no relation to Ivan), one of the most glorious dancers in history, and his passionate, full-souled and beautifully danced performance has been captured on film (and a newly-released DVD of a 1970 stage performance). V. Vasiliev was an experienced star when he created the role, and while one expected that I. Vasiliev would have the physical power for it, based on his stunning Basil in "Don Quixote" seen here two years back, his emotional maturity was a stunning surprise. He still has room to grow, but his performance now is completely satisfying. He looks older than he is (and I mean that in a good way), is convincing as a King and general, but has all the physical power of youth. The ballet has about 57 solos for Spartacus, give or take a few, and a handful of wickedly acrobatic pas de deux as well, and I. Vasiliev danced them all with enormous power and, just as importantly, enormous conviction.
He had superb support, especially from the corps (about half the men of draft age in Moscow, it seemed) who threw themselves into the ballet with the same commitment as Spartacus's followers and his proud, undefeatable Roman captors. Nina Kaptsova was a suitably lyrical foil as Spartacus's wife, Phrygia. She's both heroine and choros, deeply in love with, and supportive of, Spartacus, but also the voice of humanity. She's given the last scene, when she climbs onto Spartacus's bier and lifts his shield in mourning -- and in the promise that this battle is not over. Kaptsova's imploring arms, as if asking the gods why this was happening to her, were as beautiful as the light, clear dancing, such a contrast to the pound-pound-pounding of the men's dancing, it was as if she were a clear stream gently flowing over rocks.
As Crassus, Alexander Volchkov began the ballet dancing very neatly, showing us every step, as a true man of the 21st century, but the ballet seemed to get to him by the second act and he entered its world. He was especially effective in the scene where Crassus loses a duel to Spartacus and is humiliated by being allowed to walk away. In the solo that follows, where Crassus dances that humiliation and the impotence that he felt, Volchkov let every morsel of the character's pettiness and lust for revenge show. As his desperately ambitious mistress, Aegina, Maria Allash seemed a bit tired, and while much of her dancing was impressive, she could have done more with the character. How many bad girl roles are there in ballet, after all?
"Spartacus" has always been criticized in the U.S. for its lack of subtlety, but that's why audiences love it. The score, too, by Aram Khachaturian, is considered either tremendously exciting and inspiring, or makes one run for earmuffs. It is very repetitive, and very catchy, and very loud. There are also a few things that seem inappropriate for a serious work. The shepherds twirl their crooks as though they're cheerleaders at a football game, and the end of act curtain calls are straight from "The Ed Sullivan Show." But then there's Spartacus -- his pirouettes expressing his fury, his determination, and his love of country -- soaring into history and taking millions of hopeful souls with him, and one cannot deny the ballet's power.
*And I should note that the Communist red cloak in which the slaves clothed Spartacus when he'd succeeded in turning them into an army is now a more conciliatory lavender.
Photo: Ivan Vasiliev as "Spartacus." Photo by Marc Haegeman.