Spartacus and Jewels, Bolshoi Ballet

QPAC International Series, Brisbane, June 27 and June 29

The Bolshoi’s pairing of Yuri Grigorovich’s Spartacus and George Balanchine’s Jewels could not be more fascinating. They were made only a year apart, in 1968 and 1967 respectively, and come from the hands of men with a common lineage but different destinies. Their shared birthplace tells the story. Grigorovich was born in 1927 in Leningrad, 23 years after Balanchine was born in St Petersburg. Same city, another name. Grigorovich’s career was made and prospered in Soviet Russia. Balanchine left the country in 1924 to rattle around Western Europe and ultimately settle in the US, where he had a profound influence on the direction of classical dance.

If you want to see how things turned out, Spartacus and Jewels couldn’t be better guides.

Igor Tsvirko Spartacus

Igor Tsvirko as Spartacus. Photo: Darren Thomas

Even now, nearly 30 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Bolshoi clings to the idea of Spartacus as its standard-bearer. The narrative of a decadent ruling class putting its foot on the neck of the people fits snugly into the Soviet drambalet mould and is deeply old-fashioned. It’s not entirely a case of nostalgia, though. The Bolshoi has built its brand around dancing on an heroic scale and Spartacus certainly offers plenty of that.

The beefy crowd-pleaser wears its heart entirely on its sleeve. The slave rebellion led by Spartacus against the vicious, rapacious Imperial Romans is delivered in broad, sweeping strokes and performed the same way, propelled by Aram Khachaturian’s enjoyably bombastic score. Every action is delivered as if in capital letters. Good. Bad. Love. Hate. Leap. Turn. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. (Grigorovich takes an emphatic approach. A series of stag leaps, for instance, is seen executed directly to the audience, from one side of the stage to the other and in diagonals.)

On the evil side of the ledger the spotlight is on military leader Crassus (Alexander Volchkov at the gala opening performance on June 27) and his wily concubine, Aegina (Olga Smirnova). Spartacus (Igor Tsvirko) and his “sweetheart” Phrygia (Margarita Shrayner) represent all that is noble. Swirling around them are soldiers, insurgents and members of Crassus’s household, mostly dancing in unison and operating as a kind of moving wallpaper against which the back-and-forth power struggle between Crassus and Spartacus plays out, with an assist from the resourceful Aegina. Smirnova danced the courtesan with glittering intelligence and hauteur, even in Aegina’s supposedly erotic dance with a pole that somehow distracts wavering rebels so they can be captured. It’s perhaps not the ballet’s finest moment but at least the woman has a bit of self-determination.

Poor Phrygia is just the anguished lover, tossed about by fate and her man, who expresses his love in their great love duet by draping her around his shoulders like a sack of grain and holding her upside down on his back. The gorgeously pliant Shrayner was unshakeable in her commitment to the part, even though required to throw her arms wide in supplication far too often.

Alexander Volchkov

Alexander Volchkov as Crassus. Photo: Darren Thomas

Grigorovich’s choreography is often highly eccentric and twee or simply baffling. Soldiers alternate between goose-steps and capering, for instance, and the bacchanal scene could not be less sexy. It’s fair to say, though, that the ballet has its passionate admirers and its two leading men are given every opportunity to get the house pumping. On opening night Tsvirko was nothing short of sensational, with thrilling pyrotechnics and dynamic stage presence. Volchkov struck the right note as the decadent Crassus, even if it was just one note.

The ballet opens with a display of power by Crassus and his men, full of those endless stag leaps for Crassus and some regrettable prancing for the soldiers. A “monologue” for the captured Spartacus follows, one of nine solos that separate the action scenes. They are designed to give insights into the key characters’ emotional states although one-size-fits-all emoting would be a more accurate term for the generic angst of Grigorovich’s choreography, long on beseeching arms, splayed fingers and clutched bodies.

The wondrous Tsvirko somehow made something touching of his moments of limited introspection and in the bigger moments his attack was bold and precise and his elevation high and pillowy. He seemed to have all the time in the world for sublime double air turns and high-flying back arches during which head and feet were thrown back to meet. His ferocious movement transcended gymnastics, something not always achieved elsewhere.

Pavel Sorokin conducted with a deep understanding of the muscular score. Queensland Symphony Orchestra sounded terrific, especially the hard-working brass section. At the opening of Jewels the QSO was equally impressive in the Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky music that so vividly establishes the very different qualities of each section of Balanchine’s abstract triptych.

Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko

Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko in Rubies. Photo: Darren Thomas

Jewelsis the last word in glamour, a quality the Bolshoi dancers have in abundance. Expressive physicality is built into the Bolshoi DNA and in the first section, Emeralds, it translated into appealing sensuality and full-hearted immersion in the delectable Fauré – selections from Pélleas et Mélisandeand Shylock. Emeralds glowed.

Rubies was made to Stravinsky’s irresistibly propulsive, restless Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. There were moments when a little more Broadway-style fizz and snap would have been welcome from the corps. There was more than enough compensation, though, from Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko in their dramatically large-scaled pas de deux and Ovcharenko’s quiet wit as the men delightfully jogged as if on a run in New York’s Central Park.

Diamonds, to the music of Tchaikovsky (Symphony No.3 in D major, minus the first movement), celebrates Imperial Russian classicism. At the first performance it was also a celebration of a gleaming young talent. Alyona Kovalyova is only 20 but has the sophistication, refinement, self-possession and star quality of a much more experienced artist. The central pas de deux, in which Kovalyova was partnered gracefully by Jacopo Tissi, made time stand still.

Spartacus ends July 7; Jewels ends July 3. Spartacus will be broadcast to regional Queensland centres on July 6.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on July 1.

3 thoughts on “Spartacus and Jewels, Bolshoi Ballet

  1. Poorly planned timing of my current overseas trip has seen me miss not just the Bolshoi visit to Queensland but also the Melbourne season of LAC by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. (On the up side, American Ballet Theatre is in residence at the Metropolitan Opera House, where I enjoyed Swan Lake last week and am looking forward to Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty this week.)
    I am particularly sorry to miss Jewels, which has been a personal favourite since seeing it at London’s Royal Ballet.
    Thank you, Deborah for these highly detailed reviews, which made me feel like I was right there in the theatre.
    Next time I will plan my travel dates more carefully!

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