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There is a case to be made for seeing Grigorovich’s 1968 staging of Spartacus as the last example of official Soviet socialist art. We see the triumphalism of its ideology, the not- too-blatant echoes of Soviet militarism in the marshalled forces of the slaves, the equating of then-fresh memories of German armed might in the goose- stepping hordes of Roman soldiery, the image of a heroic leader inspiring the oppressed to revolution.
Spartacus is an extraordinary work of art, unashamedly populist in its blaring Khatchaturian score and blockbusting effects, and conceived to gain maximum impact. Even 40 years on, we thrill to its dramatics and dynamics. (It is not without significance that Grigorovich’s last big ballet, The Golden Age, staged 15 years later, looked back with nostalgia to the headily aspiring days of socialist Russia in the 1920s.)
Returned to London on Monday night, Spartacus seemed more convincing than it has for years. This is in no small part because of Carlos Acosta, a guest who brings to the slave-leader a physical power and emotional veracity that recall those great first interpreters, Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Lavrovsky, and, latterly, Irek Mukhamedov, who was the only other interpreter I thought matched them in nobility and muscular prowess.
Acosta is of their prodigious number. A leap is an affirmation of faith. Steps burn the air. Introspective moments – Spartacus tortured by doubt – tell of an inner life. Here is Grigorovich’s creation made real, and the ballet thus made real too, for an age when the inner justifications of the ballet are gone, with much else of Soviet artistic ideology.
Rewarding performances from the other principals: Maria Allash as a luscious Aegina; Anna Antonicheva fine-drawn as Phrygia, Spartacus’s beloved; Alexander Volchkov as a psychotic Crassus. There are passages that invite the ill-stifled giggle – those capering fauns – but also the grand muscular power that fires the Bolshoi’s men. The orchestra hit Khatchaturian for a boisterous six. We see the parade, and still know what it is about.
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