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SPARTACUS AND HIS GLADIATOR SLAVES BATTLE ROMAN LEGIONS AT THE BOLSHOI

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 17 FEBRUARY 2008- After their successful visit to Paris three years ago, shortly after Alexei Ratmansky had taken over the company, the Bolshoi Ballet, in full force and splendid form, made a welcome return to the Palais Garnier in January, bringing three different programmes.

After his greatly admired reconstruction of The Bright Stream, set to a 1935 score by Shostakovich, Ratmansky has gone further back in time to the Bolshoi's more traditional repertoire, opening the season on January 5th with a new full-length staging of Le Corsaire, the original of which had been premiered at the Paris Opera in 1846. Although several versions of the ballet had been since shown in Russia, it had only been represented in the West by the famous bravura pas de deux danced by Fonteyn and Nureyev in 1962, now so often seen in galas throughout the world.

Le Corsaire is a work based on Lord Byron's 1814 epic poem of the same name which tells the tale of a young Greek girl, Medora, who is sold to the elderly Said Pasha to become a member of his harem but is rescued by her lover, the dashing pirate, Conrad. There are a lot of swashbuckling pirates, lascivious women and seductive slave girls in swishing trousers, quarrels between rival sultanas opulently attired, and lots of adventures involving people being captured, escaping, seized and then rescued before everyone is finally drowned in a spectacular shipwreck, excepting of course, the happy lovers who fall into each other's arms.

But the story is of little interest; the main value of the work lies in the dancing, almost three and a half hours of it, much of it highly enjoyable if over-long in parts.

Ratmansky, together with ballet master Yuri Burlaka, have based their restaging (which they insist is not a reconstruction), on the 1899 ballet created by Marius Petipa for the Maryinsky company. Much of the choreography is based on texts and scores found in the Harvard University Theatre Collection in the U.S., and about half of the ballet can be credited to Petipa. They devised what was missing themselves in the style of the work, cutting the original near five hour work down by omitting many of the mime scenes.


Nicolaï Tsiskaridze in La Dame de Pique
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

The impressive costumes, infinitely more costly than anything seen in Russia these last ten years, are by Elena Zaitseva, who based them on the original designs by Yevgeni Ponomarov and the richly decorated set designs of the pasha's palace and pirates' cave as well as the dramatic shipwreck scene of the last act, are by Boris Kaminski. Using clever lighting effects and modern stage technology, the boat is first seen on the horizon and then comes alarmingly close before theatrically splitting into two. The weakest point of the ballet lies in the score where music has been added by Delibes, (for the "Jardin Animé" scene), Pugni, Drigo, (the "Corsair pas de deux"), Zabel, Gerber, and Peter von Oldenberg to the original score by Adam.


The elaborate "Jardin Animé" scene of Act II, reflecting the over-sentimentality of 19th century ballet, is the reputed highlight of the work. Girl after girl, all in white tutus, poured onto the stage, their arms full of garlands and hoops of pink roses with the ground strewn with yet more pink roses in pots and in baskets which the heroine springs and skips delightfully over, rivaling Hollywood for glamour. The whole hour is a bewildering succession of pretty young things tripping and gamboling amidst the masses of flowers, showcasing one pas de deux after another, to the point of indigestion. The ballet is not one of Petipa's finest, and all these fancy steps dished up became quite boring when Lunkina was not on stage.


Svetlana Zakharova in Le Corsaire
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

However, what was dateless and outstanding was the understated brilliance of the two principals. Svetlana Lunkina was a feminine, gentle Medora, more princess than slave, bringing radiance and emotion to her role throughout the performance and exuding her own delicate charm in Act II, which seemed never-ending, with or without her. Watching her, so exquisite and pure, brings the great Ekaterina Maximova to mind, which is not surprising as the legendary ballerina is now her coach. Partnered by the romantic Denis Matvienko, a guest from the Maryinsky, the famous pas de deux which was danced with elegance, elevation and grace, was a joy to see.

The lovely pas de trois of the odalisques, a jewel of Petipa's choreography also revealed Natalia Osipova, (who also gave one performance as Medora,) amongst the three remarkable soloists. Osipova, one of the big names of the future, gave a striking demonstration of her extraordinary elevation coupled with a natural stage presence.

Grigorovich's Spartacus is a perennial crowd-pleaser providing it has the right interpreters. With spectacular male dancers to pull it off, it can be seen again and again, and spectacular they all were, from Carlos Acosta in the title role, to a nasty, gloriously cruel Crassus, to the three outstanding young shepherds, not forgetting the virile and earthy corps de ballet, all bared breasts and thighs! If one adds to that the fragile, sensitive dancing of Nina Kaptsova as Phrygia, Sparticus' wife, the stage was set for a fine evening of blood, sweat and guts! Which we got. The ballet, parts of which are undeniably out-dated, was a roaring success.


Nina Kaptsova (Phrygia) - Carlos Acosta (Spartacus)
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

Spartacus, to a score by Khachaturian, was first created in 1956 for the Maryinsky, restaged in another version the following year for the Bolshoi, but not taken up by Grigorovich until 1968 when it was premiered with Vasiliev and Maximova in the leading roles. Despite its "modernity", it is a classical ballet based on classical steps, full of passion and virtuoso variations, particularly for the men. It is a work ideally suited to the actual company, with a strong story line, full of dramatic situations and realistic circumstances, telling the story of the slave, Spartacus who incites his fellow slaves to rebel against their Roman oppressors. It's about real people.

It was indeed perhaps the finest performance of Spartacus I've seen. Acosta, born to dance this role, was absolutely astounding in the first act, his act. He not only had the strength but the rage of a trapped animal. There was a wild, primitive quality to his dancing from the moment he arrived on stage with his long, black, matted locks and unkempt, unshaven face. He formed a surprising and unusual couple with the slender and refined Kaptsova, heart-stopping in her suffering in the last act, a small, injured animal. Their two pas de deux were sublime, including the breathtaking "Russian" style one-arm lifts, where the ballerina was shown high in the air before being lowered gently to the ground.

Alexander Volchkov was Crassus, the leader of the Roman troops. Tall, blond, aristocratic and magnificent, with his clean-cut beauty, he was a splendid foil to Acosta, and more than held his own in his great, spectacular leaps, where his body changed direction in mid-flight, and cat-soft landings. Aegina, the mistress of Crassus was interpreted by Maria Allash, suitably flashy and hard.


Vladimir Neporozhni (Crassus) - Carlos Acosta (Spartacus)
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

And amongst the shepherds, it was easy to distinguish 18 year-old Ivan Vasiliev, the potentially brilliant young star already acclaimed in London. To begin with, he has a FACE. An expression of utter joy and rapture when he dances, plus a leap with "ballon", that quality of hovering in the air peculiar to the young Nureyev, that leaves a spectator breathless, and wondering whether what they saw was really true. Happy days ahead.

A third programme, Ratmanski/Petipa/Petit completed the season, with Roland Petit' ballet, Dame de Pique being particularly well-received.

In the three years that he has been there, Alexei Ratmansky has done an amazing job; the company, youthful, strong, dynamic, and bursting with energy is on the way to becoming the wonderful legend it once was. Not only is he giving back to the dancers what they were famous for, a Russian repertoire full of big productions, as its name implies, but he has instilled in them a joy of dance within a secure artistic framework, both of which have been lacking in recent years. Moreover, the young generation is brimful of talent. Specialists might quibble over certain technical flaws, but does it really matter if this company does not have the same elegance and refinement of the French dancers, or the lyricism and precision of the Maryinsky theatre when they have so much else to offer? Here is a magnificent troupe not afraid of entertaining the public!

The Orchestre Colonne, conducted by Pavel Klinichev, rose to the occasion and played splendidly. Klinichev, resident conductor at the Bolshoi since 2001, gave the music his all, and at the end, staggered wearily on stage, more exhausted than the dancers, to his well-deserved vociferous acclaim.

Photo above: Vladimir Neporozhni (Crassus) in Spartacus
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

Patricia Boccadoro is dance editor at Culturekiosque.com

Travel Calendar Tip: St. Petersburg, Russia

Otium Ludens: Ancient Frescoes of Stabiae on view at The State Hermitage Museum until 30 March 2008.

Related Culturekiosque Archives:

Gladiators and Caesars, the power of spectacle in ancient Rome

Money, Power and Politics in the Roman Empire

Book Tip: Romanization in the Time of Augustus

Film Review: Gladiator

Film Review: Titus

Pompei: A l'ombre du Vésuve



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