Dancers & Companies

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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Exhausted from a long week of performances, Bolds was clueless when she saw her cast mates randomly dancing in Broadway's Minskoff Theater lobby, and even more confused when they morphed into a choreographed flash mob. But when her boyfriend of four years, Dale Browne, popped up in the mob wearing a beautiful blue suit, she realized what was coming.

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Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

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In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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