David H. Koch Theater
New York, NY
July 26, 2014
By Carol Pardo
Copyright ©2014 by Carol Pardo
Yuri Grigorvitch’s version of "Spartacus," that supremely Soviet ballet, recounting a doomed slave uprising based (loosely) on historical fact, is awash in Roman legions, Thracian rebels, shepherds inflamed by the cause of liberty and a corps of comely courtesans. But, for all those bodies, the ballet stands or falls on the performances of the four leads: the hero and leader Spartacus, his sweetheart (as the program calls her) Phrygia, his vengeful nemesis Crassus, and Aegina, Crassus’ paramour and a Romano-Soviet incarnation of Lady Macbeth (with, for Aegina, a happier ending). They were danced, at this performance, by Denis Rodkin, Maria Vinogradova, Vladislav Lantratov and Ekaterina Krysanova respectively. All were utterly committed to what they are doing and attractive, with long, beautiful line that came to them as naturally as breathing.
The ballet started with a bang and all but ended with one too. The curtain rose on Crassus standing high above his men and bathed in golden light, the golden boy, lord of all he surveyed. (Eventually Spartacus and even a shepherd appeared under that golden glow, robbing the lighting of its symbolic power). Its ending is hair raising: the title character appeared suddenly thrust above a circle of soldiers, impaled on their swords. In the meantime, the choreographer put many obstacles in the way of this cast as if testing their resolve over the course of the three hour-long ballet. His vocabulary was on short rations, consisting chiefly of jumps, straight-legged, or bent-legged. A whirwind of tours à la seconde, which in most any other ballet would be a hackneyed virtuoso stunt, was a breath of fresh air, a bit of variety, here. His characterizations were equally meager, a leitmotiv at best. Each man had his jump: Spartacus a wide and generous jeté, Crassus a leap with his entire body arched, like a taut bow about to release an arrow. Phrygia spent a lot of time looking woeful and being carried around the stage. Only Aegina was (slightly) more fully drawn. Every interaction with a male focused on her sexuality, nowhere more tellingly than an overhead crotch lift where she was lifted overhead and turned by Crassus, shown off to the multitudes by her compliant john, her legs open immutably to 120 degrees like locked calipers. It was obvious who was on top in this relationship and how she got there.
There may have been nothing more to be done with the characterization of Phrygia. But both men needed to flesh out their characters. Lantratov didn’t have the elevation or the ballon to make that signature jump expressive: the air didn’t bend to his will. Spartacus, as described in the program notes, is a romantic (and a lousy tactician). He leads an uprising to liberate the woman he loves but also lets his defeated nemesis go free, believing that humiliation is punishment enough. Shouldn’t Rodkin’s jump have reflected that, the sternum lifted as if delivering himself to the fates? Instead, his leaps looked almost Bournonvillean in their forthrightness. Even a little variety of texture would have helped, but none of these dancers has a sense of weight; it seems to have been bred out of them. And without weight there’s no sense of resistance either literally or narratively. Line and looks go only so far, particularly when you get so little help from your choreographer.