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The Bolshoi's Spartacus: Fortunately, Unfortunately

Stephanie Berger

Fortunately, the Bolshoi's Don Q was fun and wonderful. Unfortunately its Swan Lake was dreary (though it livened up when our June cover girl, Olga Smirnova, took the lead). And so it goes.

Yuri Grigorovich's Spartacus, which wrapped up the Bolshoi's visit to Lincoln Center Festival this weekend, was neither fun nor dreary. It was emotionally wrought, forceful and complete with the hokey grandiosity familiar to us from Soviet times.

As I've written elsewhere, I was an extra in the Bolshoi's earlier version of Spartacus back in the '60s, which is what made me fall in love with the Bolshoi. I still find Khachaturian's Eastern-flavored music captivating, even though many people think it's too cinematic and overblown. The wild, bacchanalian scenes are wonderfully giddy. (No one ever accused Khachaturian of cautious good taste.)

All photos of Spartacus by Stephanie Berger

Fortunately: The opening scene, when the wall of shields held by Crassus' men breaks up into separate individual fighters, is visually stunning. The warriors hunker down, moving from side to side with a kind of primitivism that's right for a story about a slave revolt in Roman times.

Unfortunately: The stiff-legged kicks of the men and women prepped for war look either like Nazi goose steps or a chorus line.

Fortunately: As the sexy and triumphant Aegina, reigning star Svetlana Zakharova was totally in her element. The combination of sinewy seductiveness and absolute power befit her way more than Odette/Odile.

Unfortunately: Crassus kept mauling Aegina's writhing torso, reminding me of Dr. Coppelius dragging his hands along Franz's back in the belief that he could draw the life force out of him and put it into his mechanical doll.

Fortunately: There is something about this old-style Soviet spectacle, and the Bolshoi dancers' go-for-broke commitment, that explains Spartacus' reputation as a crowd-pleaser. If you can get into it—and leave your aesthetics at the door—you get swept along with the bombast.

Spartacus killed with swords

Fortunately: Spartacus' leaps on a diagonal are spectacular (as executed by opening-night lead Mikhail Lobukhin).

Unfortunately: Spartacus' spectacular leaps on a diagonal are repeated at least five times throughout the evening.

Fortunately: The killing of Spartacus is definitely worthy of a hero's death, with dozens of spears raising him up high as he droops over them.

Unfortunately: When Aegina seduces a bunch of Spartacus' wayward men, she resorts to a genre that looks very much like pole dancing.

Fortunately: The passionate, yearning pas de deux between Spartacus and Phrygia tugs at your heart.

Unfortunately: At one point during that duet, Spartacus focuses intently on, and caresses, Phrygia's foot.

Fortunately: Zakharova as Aegina has fabulous legs and feet.

Unfortunately: The wigs! In the second act, Crassus' soldiers all wear identical pageboy wigs. Grigorovich's Sleeping Beauty has wigs too. This silly tradition drags us back a couple of centuries and robs the dancers of their individuality. (I also think the wig habit has rubbed off on Alexei Ratmansky, who deploys scores of identical wigs in ballets like The Firebird and Namouna.)

Fortunately and Unfortunately: I loved the revelry of the drunken party scene when Aegina seduces Spartacus' men but wished the movement were more abandoned and truly wild instead of just fast.

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