by Carmel Morgan
February 16, 2010 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House, Washington, DC
The Bolshoi Ballet’s “Spartacus” upheld the company’s reputation for big, bold productions. On opening night at the Kennedy Center, the dancers shined in their rousing rendition of choreographer Yuri Grigorovich’s 1968 ballet. Grigorovich, now white haired, joined the cast during the curtain call. He smiled and applauded their commendable efforts. The women in the audience, however, were perhaps most enthusiastic about the performance. Shouts erupted from perfumed old ladies, rhythmic clapping began, and throngs of balletomanes rushed the stage like at a rock concert. In young Ivan Vasiliev, who danced the title role, the Bolshoi may have found its next star.
Vasiliev electrified as Spartacus. He stunned the audience with his first sequence of leaps. Heads turned, and people whispered, “Wow, did you see that?” We were not quite sure what we were witnessing, as it seemed impossible for a man to soar like Vasiliev did unaided by a trampoline. Not only did Vasiliev have startlingly springy steps, but he also brought genuine emotion to his part. The maturity with which he embraced Spartacus’s triumphs and travails is rare in so youthful a dancer. I was tempted to see the evening length “Spartacus” again, just to see Vasiliev once more. They way he bounded determinedly into the air and pulled his sweetheart Phrygia (Nina Kaptsova) close to him truly moved me.
The ballet burst with masculinity and desire. Dull pencil smudge grays and browns for the slaves, and sparkling silver, gold, and white for the upper class washed over the stage. Dancers as soldiers clashed violently with their swords and shields. Men in tiny tunics kicked and stomped with spirit. The slaves, in tattered costumes, stooped, moving with eyes downcast, shoulders and chests bent toward the floor, and hands clasped behind them as if shackled.
In addition, plotting and scheming took center stage, especially the manipulations of the devious courtesan Aegina (Maria Allash). Allash and Kaptsova could not have been more different from each other. Allash showed coldness and cunning, while Kaptsova displayed incredible softness and finesse. Allash moved assertively and aggressively in her role as the temptress. She daringly bared her thighs and breast (well, sort of – one of her purposefully provocative costumes had a spot of dark pinkish glitter at the nipple). Almost Allash’s opposite, Kaptsova melted gently into her lover. She cradled sweetly in Vasiliev’s strong arms and was slung vulnerably over his back. There were a number of spectacular lifts, but none more amazing than when Vasiliev thrust Kaptsova above his head with one arm, and she extended both legs in the air. It was like watching Olympic pairs skating, minus the ice and the momentum skating provides to execute such challenging lifts.
Alexander Volchkov as Crassus, the leader of the Roman Army, danced with some bravado, but he could not match the swell of energy that Vasiliev brought, nor should he have done so. “Spartacus” has but one hero, and Vasiliev ran away with the admiration of the crowd. The shaggy haired Vasiliev stared at his hands in disbelief after realizing, when his gladiator’s helmet was removed, that he had killed his friend when forced by Crassus to fight to the death. Empowered by his anguish at his lack of freedom and his subjugation to such cruelty, Vasiliev as Spartacus led a credible uprising among the ranks of his fellow slaves. Plus, he paraded an incredible physique. I’d choose to follow him! When his men abandoned him, Vasiliev looked as if he had been smacked, holding his hand tragically to the side of his face. We felt his pain.
In addition to the dancers’ compelling performances, the rest of “Spartacus” stood out as well. Aram Khachaturian’s dramatic music, Grigorovich’s skilled choreography, and the beautiful design by Simon Virsaladze excelled. Solos typically happened at the front of the stage, against a delicate scalloped backdrop that hung from the ceiling like a huge net. The draped fabric cleverly tilted at various angles, making itself an ominously hovering cloud or a celebratory decoration. The music and dancing combined to pulse with hope or crash with devastation. Coming just two weeks after the Mariinsky Ballet’s rather tepid “The Sleeping Beauty,” the Bolshoi Ballet’s exciting “Spartacus” clearly helped it to win the annual DC battle of the Russian ballet companies.