Of course the jewel in this precious crown that is the Russian Ballet Collection DVD set is Spartacus, surely the most iconic of all Soviet ballet icons. There are about a couple of dozen different versions of this ballet that have been in production since the original, but it is Grigorovich’s 1968 production that is the most familiar worldwide.
As far as I know, there is no commercially available full length recording of the original main cast. The film version, made a year earlier in 1977, has three of the principals but substitutes Bessmertnova for Maximova and is in any case considerably shortened, although it makes up for it by using some pleasing filmic techniques reminiscent of Eisenstein.
By the time that this live performance was filmed in 1978, the great Maris Liepa, creator of Crassus, has danced for the last time with the Bolshoi and Nina Timofeyevna, creator of Aegina, was graduating towards choreography and eventual emigration. Mikhail Gabovich and Tatiana Golikova give strong performances in shoes that are difficult to fill. It is also poignant to realise that Aram Ilyich Khachaturian who wrote one of the greatest ballet scores of all time, died in May 1978, so in many ways this is a valedictory performance of sorts.
However, it is Vasiliev and Maximova that make this recording so very, very special. There are many husband and wife pairings in the ballet world and especially in Russian companies, where partners in life have traditionally danced together a great deal, if not exclusively. However, I have never seen the sheer electricity that passes between Maximova and Vasiliev, palpable on film even thirty-seven years later. It is amazing to think that in the necessarily limited career of the dancer, it is a decade since they danced the roles for the first time. There is simply no other dancer that has come close to dancing Phrygia with visceral passion. So versatile is Maximova that it is truly difficult to reconcile this performance with the child that she presents in Act I of Nutcracker. The camera catches her on the edge of dances in the orgy scene in Act I for instance, and the level of wretchedness that she evinces is heart-rending. Gestures seem to be pulled from her very innards.
The pas de deux likewise can never have been danced so well as by these great, seasoned performers. The passage of time places the nature of Grigorovich’s innovations in their true light. The lifts are extraordinary; fiendishly difficult, but always serving the character and plot. Not a finger is out of place and transitions from mighty, one-handed lifts to serpentine entwinings are seamless. There is a clear progression within the dramatic tradition of the Bolshoi, from spectacles such as Spring Waters with its almost gymnastic partnering, to the narrative-driven drama of Spartacus.
It is a complex ballet that works on many levels and, more than any other in the Bolshoi repertoire, is judged worldwide against a socio-political backdrop. Although it was (and perhaps still is) seen by its detractors as a crude piece of Cold War propaganda, its survival in the rep and massive popularity for old and new audiences alike must surely prove that it is worthy of deeper reading.
This DVD serves as a glimpse into the earlier performances and a record of an otherwise ephemeral evening that has captured a few of the protagonists who were in at the beginning and who understood as no others ever can, its real worth.
The Russian ballet icons box set should really be packaged as a tardis. Not only is it considerably bigger on the inside than the out, it is also an opportunity to travel in time and space. There are performers who never danced outside Russia and a range of works that reference the Bolshoi’s history from the earliest days to recent times.
Thanks to the wonders of technology, we can have these performances at our fingertips whenever we want. This inestimable privilege can only be outshone by the promise that this is only Volume I.
The Russian Ballet Collection (five classic ballets) are available via www.russianballetcollection.com or by calling (UK) 0344 543 9801.