BWW Reviews: Ballet in Cinema From Emerging Pictures Presents SPARTACUS
Spartacus is like camp. Not summer camp, but Susan Sontag camp, who wrote in that brainy, immortal essay , "Camp helps account for the fact that opera and ballet are experienced as such rich treasures of Camp, for neither of these forms can easily do justice to the complexity of human nature. " This could easily describe Spartacus, which, for all its breathtaking dancing, is reminiscent of a silent movie that could have starred Ramon Novarro, Theda Barra, Lillian Gish and Douglas Fairbanks Senior. To my knowledge, the only Spartacus on film is the 1959 version starring Kirk Douglas who, if he had been known by his birth name, Issur Danielovitch Demsky, would have been thrown to the lions along with the other slaves accompanying Spartacus.
Just to let you know, Spartacus was the leader of the slaves who rose against the Romans in the Third Servile War. I am sure that this provided some context, because, if you follow Russian history, you might recognize the impetus behind the ballet's origins. After Josef Stalin's death in March 1953, right at the height of the infamous Jewish doctor's plot and anti-semitic campaign, and Khruschev's denunciation of the great leader on February 25, 1956, cultural institutions, no doubt, wanted to follow their new leader in his quest for justice and rehabilitation. Perhaps this is why Spartacus came to fruition. But I can't verify that.
The history of the Spartacus ballet is strange. Aram Khachaturian composed the music for the ballet in 1954 and was awarded the Lenin prize that year. But what's a ballet without a choreographer? In 1955, Leonide Yakobson, also referred to as Iakobson or Jacobson, received an invitation from the Kirov (now the Mariinsky) to choreograph a ballet to the Khachaturian music. Yakobson did away with pointe shoes and dressed the dancers in tunics and sandals. But by trying to create a contemporary vision of ancient Rome, he also dispensed with spectacle. Surprisingly, the premiere on December 27 met with critical approval, not to mention a great deal of negativity. The ballet travelled to the Bolshoi in 1958, but with new choreography by Igor Moiseyev. In 1968 Yuri Grigorovich choreographed his own version that met with great acclaim in Russia, Europe and the United States. This is the version that all balletomanes love or hate. I can't make up my mind.
It's easy to laugh at Spartacus, at the same time admiring the outstanding opportunities it affords the dancers. Depending on your perspective, it can remind you of Halloween night in Greenwich Village, a hangover or a great time at a bar. Watching Spartacus I am reminded of spectacular Bolshoi dancing, minus any good choreography. The Soviet years, and even in modern times did not yield any results that rivaled the works of Balanchine Robbins, Ashton, Taylor, just to name a few. If there were any innovative choreographers, and there were a few, their work was quickly suppressed. The Soviet style was to bedazzle with looks, if not with many brains. Not that I am asking for a brainy ballet, just one with ideas that translate into dance, conveying not only its beauty, but the thought behind the choreography. Spartacus conveys just the opposite. It's an exercise that almost borders on male exhibitionism. All right, I know that's appealing. But some more thought, more creative ideas would have been appreciated. But remembering the Berlin Wall, Brezhnev, the refuseniks, maybe it was better to stay within the confines of the system.
The HD broadcast was excellent. The picture was clear and the cameras were able to capture all the excitement of the stage production. The cast was outstanding. Mikhail Lobukhin was a virile, stupendous presence as Spatacus, Anna Nikulina as Phrygia, the wife of Spartacus was very appealing; Vladislav Lantratov was a sneering, unsettled presence as Crassus and, best of all, Svetlana Zakharova as the trampy Aegina. She was, to use the old adage, a hoot.
I am looking forward to The Golden Age. I won't say more about it, only that it might say something to us today!
Photo credit: Damir Yusupov/Bolshoi Theater