Although popularized in the West by Stanley Kubrick's 1955 film, the story of Spartacus in Russia is popularly associated with ballet. The image of the hunky rebel slave, standing up for freedom against cruelty and oppression, brings to mind not Kirk Douglas, but Vladimir Vasilev of the Bolshoi Ballet.
The idea of a slave rising up against the slave state (Rome) as an exemplary hero of the proletariat goes back to Karl Marx. And the idea of putting this story in the ballet starts with Nikolai Volkov in 1938. It was he who began creating a version of Spartacus that could be danced. Starting with the accounts of Plutarch and Appian, he embellished the story to include the characters of the Aegina and Harmodius who would betray Spartacus and his army. Although he gave the scenario to Igor Moiseyev at the Bolshoi, the production never got off the ground.
Volkov did not give up on his idea. He pursued Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (you'll recall his "Sabre Dance") to work on a ballet. Like any other composer of his day, Khachaturian worked within the strictures of Soviet realism. Music was supposed to celebrate "the people," and be rooted in folk song, and Khachaturian, in the early 1940's, was celebrated for his incorporation of Armenian folk melodies in his work. But soon this officially sanctioned composer found his reputation waning-- he was accused of "bourgeois tendencies" for formalism appearing in his work. He, along with Shostakovich and Prokofiev were declared "anti-people." Eventually, after making official apologies, and scoring pro-Stalin films, he began work on a ballet in 1950, and by 1954, he had a four act score.
Spartacus finally got its premiere, under the staging of Leonid Jacobsen at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad in 1956. Askold Makarov danced the lead and Inna Zubkovskaya created the role of Phrygia, Spartacus's wife. It was not successful. Over at the Bolshoi, Moiseyev thought he could do it better, and the ballet got its Moscow premiere in 1958. It was not a success. Neither was a 1962 re-staging at the Bolshoi, helmed this time by Jacobsen again.
Despite this, Khachaturian was still busy working on the score. He put together the music in Four Suites, for orchestras to perform as standalone pieces. (The recordings you find today are not of the ballet score, but of Khachaturian's suites. The music is out of sequence from what you would hear at the ballet). Khachaturian won the Lenin Prize for the score in 1959.
In 1964, the Bolshoi got a new artistic director: Yuri Grigorovich. He came at Spartacus with a new eye, and began a reworking. He tossed out Volkov's scenario, tightened the story, going back to Raffaello Giovagnoli's 1874 novel for inspiration. He called in Khachaturian to shorten the work to three acts.
And so, in 1968, the Bolshoi presented the new improved Spartacus. Vladimir Vasilev returned to the lead (he'd played it in 1958), and this time he was hailed as exceptional. Ekaterina Maximova, the star ballerina of the Bolshoi, played Phrygia. It is this production that established the ballet as a Soviet classic, and established Grigorovich as a genius. (A DVD is available of this staging, filmed in 1977 with Natalia Bessmertnova as Phyrgia. It has been called "one of the best dance films ever made"-- although apparently the video transfer by Kultur is abominable).
The ballet story features four main characters: Spartacus, the hero, noble, brave, steadfast, et cetera, dances freedom, strength, and honor-- you can tell he's the good guy because he's dancing classical ballet steps. Crassus, the Roman general, is cruel, vain, domineering, lustful, et ceterea (Maris Liepa played the role at the Bolshoi, and it brought him acclaim) is clearly the villain as he has a neo-classical style of dance. Phrygia, Spartacus's lover, comes across as caring, gentle, fragile. Aegina, a concubine, is a scheming traitor, cold and deceitful (Nina Timofeyeva). There are various and many Gladiators, slaves, shepherds, courtesans, soldiers, slavers, patricians, and peasants.
Here's the plot: Spartacus and Phrygia, slaves, are separated. Crassus spies Phrygia, is lust-struck, is about to take her when Aegina, the jealous type, intervenes with some sensual dancing. Meanwhile, Spartacus is made to become a gladiator and has to kill a friend for the pleasure of Crassus. Filled with remorse, he decides to lead the slaves in revolt, and his army actually manages to capture and defeat Crassus. But they let him go (to humiliate him further). Bad move, as Crassus has the might of the entire Roman empire at his command, as well as Aegina and her stable of hussies, who invite Spartacus's men into an orgy. Blissful, but spent, they are decimated by the Roman legions, and Spartacus is captured and killed, hoisted aloft on Roman spears. Phrygia mourns Spartacus and his body is held aloft for the immortal cause of freedom for the people.
In addition to being a classic of Soviet ballet, this is a guy's ballet. If you think of ballet as all about the ballerinas, with the occasional man needed for a pas de deux, this is the ballet for you. Gladiators. Roman legions. The Bolshoi ballet corps are wearing armor and carrying weapons, for cryin' out loud.
Khachaturian's music from Spartacus
has one infamous tune: the romantic "Adagio
of Spartacus and Phrygia" (which appears in the ballet as they are re-united, in the score in the Second Suite). It has re-surfaced in the soundtrack
s of many films and television shows, becoming the theme to the series The Onedin Line
, and featured notably in both Caligula
and The Hudsucker Proxy.
Richard Bratby. "Spartacus: Suite No. 2." Classicalnotes.co.uk. 1999. <http://www.classicalnotes.co.uk/notes/khachaturian1.html> (4 June 2004)
Paul Dorn. 1 March 2002, "Grigorovich Ballet Performs "Spartacus" in Sacramento" <soc.culture.russian> (4 June 2004)
John W. Goff. Review of Khachaturian: Spartacus DVD. Amazon.com 14 March 2003. <http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B0000YEDLS/002-4325403-7659261> (4 June 2004)
Kristian Hibberd. Programme Notes for the London Shostakovich Orchestra Concert at St Cyprian's Church, 19 May 2001. Shostakovich.com. <http://www.shostakovich.com/may2001.html> (4 June 2004)
Gary Lemco. Review of Khachaturian: Spartacus DVD. Audiophile Audition Web site. Jan/Feb 2004. <http://www.audaud.com/audaud/JAN-FEB04/dvd-v/dvd1.html> (4 June 2004)
Anne Marriott. Review of Spartacus by the Bolshoi Ballet, July 1999, London, Coliseum. Ballet Magazine. July 1999. <http://www.ballet.co.uk/magazines/yr_99/aug99/am_rev_bolshoi_0799.htm> (4 June 2004)
Brenda Miller. "Spartakus." Music Lovers Web site. <http://www.music-lovers.co.il/russia/concerts_files/concert_pages/ballets/spartakus.html> (4 June 2004)
<rss28> Review of Khachaturian: Spartacus VHS. Amazon.com 4 March 2000. <http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/6301217888/002-4325403-7659261> (4 June 2004)
Kozet Sinanyan. "Grigorovich Brings 'Spartacus' to Stage in Pasadena." Usanogh. 1 October 2003. <http://www.usanogh.com/articles/article.php?story_id=200&author_id=47> (4 June 2004)
Internet Movie Database. "Aram Khachaturyan." <http://imdb.com/name/nm0006154/> (4 June 2004)
The Guardian. "Cinematic for the People." 12 June 2003. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/story/0,11710,975624,00.html> (4 June 2004)