Ah, Spartacus. That ballet of the long, swishy cloak; the short, short tunic; and the bulging bare thigh muscle. Where jumps are big, men are manly, and the rich oppress the poor to the sound of war drums. It has for many decades been an iconic Bolshoi blockbuster, and was one of two offerings the company brought to Brisbane in this year’s QPAC International Series (the other was George Balanchine’s Jewels). Compared to Jewels, Spartacus was a revelation.

Denis Rodkin in <i>Spartacus</i> © M Logvinov
Denis Rodkin in Spartacus
© M Logvinov

Long before Russell Crowe pocketed an Oscar for Gladiator, the composer Aram Khachaturian was scooping up the 1954 Lenin Prize for his magnificent ballet score Spartacus, the story of the gladiator who led a doomed slave uprising against the Romans. The ballet has been through a few incarnations since, but the most famous is Yuri Grigorovich’s, choreographed in 1968 in an era when the Soviet Union took a keen interest in ballet and used the Bolshoi as a bulwark of Soviet identity.

It is for this reason the Bolshoi in Spartacus is so fascinating, even now. Grigorovich, a Soviet government favourite, ruled the Bolshoi as artistic director for three decades. His ballets were an extension of the era’s dominant sociopolitical message (a good example is his controversially altered Swan Lake ending, where the lovers survive), and Spartacus is no exception. The story is plotted into neat dualities. Our hero is the noble slave Spartacus, rescuing his devoted, virtuous wife Phrygia from the slave markets. He is pitted against the Roman commander Crassus, filthily rich and morally bankrupt, with his scheming courtesan Aegina draped over one bicep. Spartacus recruits hardworking shepherds to fight for freedom; Crassus, meanwhile, is hosting a blood-soaked orgy in his glittering palace. Duels are man-on-man dagger-and-fist spectacles backed by a cast of thousands: marching Roman infantrymen, poised maidservants, and languishing slaves. Boom go the drums. Bang goes Spartacus’ leap from the wings. Slaves – throw off your chains!

Denis Rodkin and Yulia Stepanova in <i>Spartacus</i> © Damir Yusupov
Denis Rodkin and Yulia Stepanova in Spartacus
© Damir Yusupov

The moves are big, bold, and explosive. The story is heroic, blockbuster drama. Exactly the kind of ballet the Bolshoi is famous for, and why Spartacus has so long been central to Bolshoi identity. And then there are the jumps. Russian dance tradition is famous for the force, power, and energy of its men. It gave the world Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov and was, for most of the 20th century, the gold standard in male dancing. Spartacus provides some of the hardest and most thrilling male roles in the classical repertory, so seeing it performed by the Bolshoi is a lesson not just in male dancing but Russian male dancing. “Holy snapping narwhals,” breathed my ‘bloke’s bloke’ non-dancer guest over his plastic beer cup. “It’s not like watching dancers in dress-up as soldiers. It’s like watching real soldiers dancing! Oh, sorry love,” he added to the lady in furs harrumphing next to him. If she hadn’t been so affronted she would have realised a valuable point had been raised. Spartacus is not just about what male soloists can achieve (often the typical focus in other companies), but the thrilling accessibility of an entire male corps schooled in a tradition where male dancing is about unashamedly masculine virility and power. It is an impact rarely replicated in companies outside the Russian school, as technically on-par, or superior, as their male dancers might otherwise be.

Denis Rodkin in <i>Spartacus</i> © Damir Yusupov
Denis Rodkin in Spartacus
© Damir Yusupov

The Bolshoi brought a few casts to Brisbane, and I saw Denis Rodkin as Spartacus and Artemy Belyakov as Crassus. Both were sensational with the explosive leaps, big turns, and ‘do or die’ acting that make Spartacus so satisfying. Yulia Stepanova was exquisite as Aegina, combining sensuality and strength. Melting into the splits one minute and diving into rock-solid cliffhanger balances the next, she was master of two extremes, using them to highlight the dramatic complexities of Aegina’s outwardly-seductive inwardly-cold persona. Anastasia Denisova was a disappointing Phrygia. Her dancing seemed spiky and dramatically one-dimensional, lacking the necessary lyricism and purity to contrast Aegina’s voluptuous power. The corps were a highlight, confident in the ballet and its meaning.

Spartacus has over the years been called a Bolshoi “warhorse”. Certain commentators have pointed to its excesses, comic-book simplicity, and sixties kitsch (those Roman blonde wigs are a real highlight). But for all that, it is fascinatingly unique as a study in Soviet political history, Bolshoi identity, and Russian male dancing. This historical singularity means the effect is not really replicated when performed by another company. Watching the Bolshoi in Spartacus, however, can teach you more about these things than any text book ever could. It is irreplicable and invaluable for this reason alone. And it's also just plain entertaining fun, especially when performed as well as the Bolshoi do it. Who doesn’t love a good blockbuster? I’ll take my cloaks long and my tunics short, thanks.