David Koch Theater, New York, NY; July 27, 2014 (m)

Colleen Boresta

Mikhail Lobukhin as Spartacus and Anna Nikulina as Phrygua in a scene from Bolshoi Ballet's 'Spartacus'.  Photo © Stephanie Berger

Mikhail Lobukhin as Spartacus and Anna Nikulina as Phrygua in a scene from Bolshoi Ballet’s ‘Spartacus’.
Photo © Stephanie Berger

The final performance of the Bolshoi Ballet at the 2014 Lincoln Center Festival was a spectacular one. Their production of “Spartacus” is absolutely thrilling. I know I will remember it for years.

There had been a couple of unsuccessful versions previously, for both the Kirov and Bolshoi Ballets, but the ballet did not catch on until Yuri Grigorovich choreographed this “Spartacus” in 1968 to music by the Armenian composer Aram Khachaturyan. It had an iconic cast led by Vladimir Vasiliev as Spartacus and Maris Liepa as Crassus. This is the “Spartacus” the Bolshoi performs so electrifyingly today.

The ballet tells the story of a young man (Spartacus) and his wife (Phrygia) who are among the many forced into slavery when the Roman army takes over their homeland. The couple is separated at the slave market, Spartacus being sent to gladiator school while Phrygia becomes a slave for General Crassus, leader of the Roman army. It follows their story through a gladiators’ revolt, Spartacus’ freeing of his wife, and his mistake in giving Crassus his freedom after beating him in hand-to-hand combat instead. Crassus gains his revenge by raising a huge Roman army and defeating Spartacus and his followers; a battle during which Spartacus is slain.

“Spartacus” is a grand spectacle of a ballet. Grigorovich’s exciting choreography perfectly fits Khachaturyan’s sweeping music. All the dancers were phenomenal, especially the four leads. Mikhail Lobukhin’s Spartacus was a larger than life hero. His soaring leaps had astonishing elevation. His multiple air turns were spine-tingling and his turns à la seconde were performed at a lightning quick pace. Lobukhin also has astonishing charisma in the role. He only had to step on the stage for all eyes (cast and audience) to turn to him. I would follow Lobukhin’s Spartacus anywhere. I can certainly understand how he raised such a large army.

With his wife, Phrygia, Lobukhin was both passionate and tender. He is a wonderfully secure partner, and performed Grigorovich’s inventive and innovative lifts flawlessly. The Act III pas de deux where Spartacus holds his wife high above his head one-handed while he makes a circuit of the stage was particularly thrilling.

As Phrygia, Anna Nikulina gave a very moving performance. Her beautiful arms and lovely light leaps clearly showed her love for Spartacus. Svetlana Zakharova was masterful as the evil and conniving Aegina, courtesan and mistress to General Crassus. Her glorious extensions and powerful grand jetés fitted the character perfectly. Zakharova oozed sex, especially when she and her courtesan army seduced many of Spartacus’ followers. Alexander Volchkov was a worthy protagonist for Spartacus. His backbend leaps and triple air turns demonstrated Crassus’ lust for power.

No review of “Spartacus” could be complete without mentioning the incredible male corps. I don’t think there is any ballet company in the world that can perform such flawlessly exhilarating group leaps and turns. The Bolshoi’s “Spartacus” is ballet where everything comes together – the music, the choreography, the dancing, the costumes, the scenery – to create an intensely moving ballet experience. It will stay in my mind’s eye for many years to come. I hope New York does not have to wait another nine years for the Bolshoi Ballet to return.