The journey of Spartacus, stage by stage by stage

After the Bolshoi Ballet’s season at Brisbane’s Queensland Performing Arts Centre (from late June to early July 2019) the company is heading to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

In Brisbane Yuri Grigorovich’s famous Spartacus was sold out and so too are the performances of Spartacus at the Royal Opera House on opening night, July 29 then August 1, 9 & 10.

The season also includes Swan Lake and Don Quixote as well as Alexei Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream, the latter performed at the Bolshoi’s season at QPAC in 2013.

Staging Spartacus on tour is almost compulsory for the company and, while it’s often a box office sellout, for decades it also made a statement: “This is Us!”

The first time I saw the Bolshoi perform Grigorovich’s Spartacus was at the Sydney Entertainment Centre in 1994. That year the Bolshoi’s Australian tour included La Bayadere and The Golden Age, the latter also by Grigorovich, then the Bolshoi’s director.

A year later Grigorovich ended his artistic directorship but Spartacus remained the tent pole of the Bolshoi on tour.

The Bolshoi’s website details the where and when of Spartacus from 2005 to 2015.

The ballet travelled to South Korea (2005), Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham and Southampton (2006) Hong Kong and Amsterdam (2008), Spain (2009), London (2010), Tokyo (2012), New York (2014), Rio de Janeiro and SĂŁo Paulo (2015).

Fifty-one years after Spartacus’s premiere, the power of the performance continues mainly because of the extraordinary talent of the Bolshoi’s male dancers who thrill audiences with their exceptional technique as they fly through the air in grand jetés and stag leaps.

Grigorovich had left the company when he discovered the Ministry of Culture planned to appoint Vladimir Vasilyev as the chief choreographer, however he returned to the Bolshoi and, this year, is still acknowledged as the company’s “ballet master”.

At the age of 92, Grigorovich’s impact continues.

Ten of the 39 ballets listed in the Bolshoi’s current season are connected to Grigorovich whether they are the original production or those titled “choreographic version”, “new choreographic version” or “new scenic version”.

The ballets are A Legend of Love, Giselle, Ivan the Terrible, La Bayadere, Nutcracker, Raymonda, Spartacus, Swan Lake, The Golden Age and Fille mal gardee.

The Bolshoi’s repertoire did seem to change when from 2004-2008, the director, Alexei Ratmansky, rejuvenated the company with new works among them his production of Le Corsaire, Russian Seasons and The Flames of Paris.

Years after Ratmansky’s departure in 2008 I asked him why he left the company.

“There was no time to prepare new works, to think about it, to accumulate energy”, he said.

“There was too much pressure of responsibility, no time for the family and too many negative emotions, which does not mean there were no positive emotions”.

After Sergei Filin’s arrival Grigorovich’s works remained within the repertoire including a revival of his A Legend of Love, but during Filin’s artistic directorship the repertoire also included Balanchine’s Jewels (2012), John Cranko’s Onegin (2013), Jean-Christophe Maillot’s The Taming of the Shrew (2114) and John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias (2014).

In early 2012, ahead of the Bolshoi’s tour to Brisbane’s Queensland Performing Arts Centre the following year, I interviewed Filin in his office at the Bolshoi Theatre.

He said very little about his plans or future repertoire but was particularly keen to talk about his decision to add The Taming of the Shrew to the repertoire.

Some said he was criticised for moving the company slightly away from its classical roots.

The following year everything fell apart when Filin was attacked with acid and lost most of his vision.

In July 2015 the Bolshoi Theatre’s general director Vladimir Urin announced that Filin’s contract would not be renewed.

Three months later he revealed that the new director would be Makhar Vaziev.

When Vaziev was the director the Kirov Ballet in St Petersburg from April 1995 to March 2008, he grew the repertoire adding the works of Balanchine, Hans van Manen, John Neumeier, William Forsythe, Harald Lander and Pierre Lacotte.

During his first years at the Bolshoi he has again expanded the repertoire, first adding Alexei Fadeyechev’s new Don Quixote, Sol Leon’s and Paul Lightfoot’s Short Time Together, Hans van Manen’s Frank Bridge Variations, Vyacheslav Samodurov’s new Ondine then, in 2017 and 2018, Yuri Possokhov’s Nureyev, Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet, Harald Lander’s Etudes, Jerome Robbins’ The Cage, Jiri Kylian’s The Forgotten Land, Neimeier’s Anna Karenina, a new Petroushka, Pierre Lacotte’s La Fille du Pharaon, a new Coppelia, William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite and, this year, Maurice Bejart’s Gaite Parisenne and this coming September, Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale.

That list includes 11 choreographers from the west.

From 2016 to 2018 Spartacus was nowhere to be seen on Bolshoi tours but this year it’s leapt out – once more.

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Olga Smirnova in Spartacus, photo © Darren Thomas

Yuri Grigorvich, April 2018, photo © Damir Yusupov

Igor Tsvirko in Spartacus photo © Darren Thomas

Alexander Volchkov as Crassus in Spartacus, photo © Elena Fetisova