The Mikhailovsky Ballet – Spartacus

Khachaturian
Spartacus: score for the ballet

Spartacus – Denis Marvienko
Crassus – Marat Shemiunov
Valeria – Irina Perren
Sabina – Anatasia Matvienko
Crixus – Denis Morozov
Pompeius – Andrei Bregvadze

Soloists and corps de ballet of the Mikhailovsky Ballet and Orchestra of St Petersburg
Karen Durgarian

Yuri Grigorovich – Choreographer
Farukh Ruzimatov – Artistic Director


Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 22 July, 2008
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Mikhailovsky Ballet perform Spartacus. Photograph: Getty ImagesThe epic three-and-three-quarter hours Soviet ballet Spartacus, with a score by the Georgian-born (of Armenian extraction) composer Aram Khachaturian was first presented by the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad in December 1956.

Within twelve years, Khachaturian had produced no fewer than five versions of the music for productions in Prague and Moscow, and it was the fifth such production, that which should be termed the ‘Third Bolshoi’ version, choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich, which has entered the international repertory.

The version brought to London by the Mikhailovsky Ballet of St Petersburg is a new one, the music reduced to a more manageable two hours. Half a century ago, at the height of the Soviet empire, a ballet based upon the successful uprising of Roman slaves against their captors could well be seen as an allegory of the triumph of the working man as prisoner against his subjugation by an oppressive ruling class – in other words, the triumph of Communism – but equally, if rather less obviously, it could have been interpreted as the oppression of the people of the Soviet empire under Stalinist rule.

The Mikhailovsky Ballet's SpartacusWhichever way it was taken, it has no such connotations today. So the unveiling of a new version in which Spartacus, killed in battle while leading those who are fighting against oppression, is transformed into a symbolic Christian martyr – his body not tied to a cross as such, but hanging from a gigantic cross-cross in a denouement that, historically, is equally appropriate and more obviously timeless – is a brilliant solution to the problem of making the work more relevant to today’s audiences.

Some people attending this first night could not bring themselves to stay to the end of the performance, but left about halfway through the second act, thus missing this astonishing transformation of the human element in the story, and in the score, which thereby brought this breathtaking production to a moving and wholly successful new conclusion.

Mikhailovsky Ballet perform SpartacusBreathtaking it certainly was: we had a corps de ballet of around 150 dancers, aided by a chorus of between 50 and 60 – the Company bringing its own orchestra and conductor – all brought here through the subvention of Bank St Petersburg.

The problem which arises when a very long ballet is cut is that the shorter scenes, added for colouration but omitted here, do not give those dancing the leading roles a chance to recharge their energies, or even get their breath back, before the next major scene begins. This meant that the principal dancers were performing for much of the time, and the demands thus placed upon them were considerable indeed. But it says a great deal for the character, stamina, artistic integrity and sheer physical strength displayed that the entire story not only flowed with an inner life that was exciting to a degree, but also gripped the attention throughout.

This was modern creative ballet at its best. Here was something that struck home and held the attention from the off, a production whose choreography made the most of Khachaturian’s music, which, in context, creates a much more impressive and greater impact than when it is heard in the occasional concert suite or, in the case of the second act’s Adagio, as the theme from BBC Television’s “The Onedin Line”.

It is easy to adopt a de haut en bas attitude in respect of this piece, but those who failed to grab it while they could have missed something that will long remain in the memory as a thrilling re-telling of the timeless Spartacus story – a marvellous ballet, marvellously staged, with excellent sets and brilliant costumes. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If they do, they probably weren’t there or left early!

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