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Big, bold, brassy. There’s only one company you’d want to see dance Spartacus: the Bolshoi Ballet. Although Aram Khachaturian’s raucous romp through the Third Servile War, in which Spartacus leads a slave rebellion against the Roman Empire, was premiered by the Kirov in 1956, it was Yury Grigorovich’s Bolshoi staging in 1968 which really put the ballet on the map. It’s the perfect vehicle for the bigger-higher-faster Bolshoi style and is the company’s calling card and – terrifically danced – the perfect opener for its London residency at the Royal Opera House.

Denis Rodkin (Spartacus) © Natalia Voronova
Denis Rodkin (Spartacus)
© Natalia Voronova

Subtlety has no place here. Go for the explosive male dancing and two contrasting female leads. Denis Rodkin, his wild, tousled hair giving him a crazed look, exploded across the stage as Spartacus. With sinewy leaps, he ate up the stage in his scissored jetés. From rebellious slave to his death as a human pin-cushion, there wasn’t a huge amount of acting going on, but frankly, with such athleticism on display, who cares? Anastasia Denisova’s long-limbed Phrygia was languid and eloquent, melting in Rodkin’s arms. Their lightning fast lifts were spectacular, as was the series of extended one-handed holds in their Act 3 Adagio (the one bit of the score everyone knows).

Anastasia Denisova (Phrygia) © Natalia Voronova
Anastasia Denisova (Phrygia)
© Natalia Voronova

Artemy Belyakov’s thrusting Crassus excelled in back-bending jumps, his sword practically tickling his ankle behind his back. He corkscrewed through a series of turns in thrilling style. Svetlana Zakharova was an imperious Aegina, Crassus’ courtesan but so aristocratic of phrase and gesture that she looked as if she owned the stage. Her bourrées were so light it looked like she was gliding across the stage and Belyakov launched her into some dazzling lifts.

It’s easy to smirk at the Carry On costumes, or the goose-stepping Romans, reminiscent of the “Springtime for Hitler” cabaret from Mel Brooks’ The Producers, but you just have to take Spartacus for the period piece it is: good old Soviet kitsch, a propaganda ballet promoting Soviet ideals. The tale of the slave rebellion was a clear analogy for the overthrow of Tsarist rule by the proletariat and the score won Khachaturian the Lenin Prize.

Svetlana Zakharova (Aegina) © Damir Yusupov
Svetlana Zakharova (Aegina)
© Damir Yusupov

And how thunderously the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra played this potent score here, boxed in the Covent Garden pit, the Stalls Circle Stage A seats – usually removed for legal health and safety of the ROH musicians – firmly in place. It was a frenzy of decibels, thrilling to hear performed with such verve under the experienced baton of Pavel Sorokin. There was real bite to the strings and that distinctive Russian blaring brass. A smoky saxophone sleazed; oily clarinets snaked their way beguilingly through the Dance of the Gaditanian Maidens. In the Act 2 Slaves’ Variation, the entire orchestra gives way to a battery of percussion; to see the woodwind team craning their necks to watch them, grinning broadly, was a delight.

Before the performance, Dame Monica Mason paid warm tribute to Victor Hochhauser, who died in March. Hochhauser was a great impresario bringing, with his wife Lilian, great musicians and artists to Britain from behind the Iron Curtain. We have the Hochhausers to thank for countless Bolshoi and Kirov/Mariinsky residencies here. With some spectacular dancing and playing, this particular evening was a guilty pleasure all round.

*****