Bolshoi Ballet’s “Spartacus” at the Mariinsky – May 2024

Even the most talented writer cannot find words that do justice to artists of the highest caliber, finely tuned ballet dancers in this case, who have spent years and sometimes decades of daily toil to perfect their art.

The Bolshoi Ballet troupe, now united with the Mariinsky under the same overall directorship of Valery Gergiev, launched its first set of “exchange” performances in early May 2024. The Moscow troupe brought three nights of Yuri Grigorovich’s “Spartacus” followed by another three nights of Balanchine’s “Diamonds” to the Mariinsky stage in St. Petersburg. Extra long last-minute ticket lines meant that the performances began 25 minutes after the intended curtain time, but that did not sway devoted fans – many of which who travelled north from Moscow especially to see the troupe.

Under Makhar Vaziev, who ran the Mariinsky until 2007, the Bolshoi has revamped itself. A set of younger dancers have been promoted to principal, the corps de ballet has improved its quality from a rather dismal state back in 2016, and a wide range of new works continue to plump up it’s Grigorovich-based repertoire.  The result is a troupe that looks at the top of its game, barring ongoing injuries that plague its ranks. For this run, the holder of the newly awarded “People’s Artist of Russia” title, Anna Nikulina, danced all three nights of Phrygia because Alena Kovaleva, Elizaveta Korkorova, Maria Vinogradova and Evgenia Obratsova were all injured. While these injuries severely limited the casting options, the result was Nikulina’s triumph –both in her artistry and stamina– over the three-night run.

Crushing the stereotype that Spartacus should be performed by a tall dancer, Alexei Putanstev depicted a passionate, strong, determined hero whose sense of justice leads to his tragic fate. With powerful jumps, innate musicality and a clear ability to act, Putanstev is a real, and as yet mostly unknown, gem in the Bolshoi’s pocket.

Vladislav Lantratov remains uncontested as the Bolshoi’s best Crassus at the moment. Lantratov’s jumps are unparalleled, his partnering flawless, and the combination of his classic facial features with expert stage makeup provide the appearance of a Roman statue come to life. But what stands out is his ability to fill this character with a palpable, vengeance-ridden contempt that sends a shudder of fear to anyone who dares approach. He portrays a stern leader with buckets of scorn cursing through his veins. Victory ultimately is his, but his character holds so much disdain for Spartacus, that one ends up rooting for the losing party.

Prima ballerina and People’s Artist of Russia, Ekaterina Krysanova, danced an insurpassably elegant Aegina. Sculpted lines, perfected positions, and burgeoning sexuality characterized her role alongside Lantratov’s Crassus. In contrast, Anna Nikulina’s loving and faithful Phrygia projected suggestions of the late Natalya Bessmertnova in terms of line and plastique – slightly wilted wrists and similar leg contours make her a Grigorovich – and now viewer—favorite.

Under the powerful baton of Pavel Sorokin, the orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre has never sounded so clear (or at such a great volume). The audience gave a standing ovation to this cast, retaining them for repeat curtain calls. Sometimes, when the time is right, pure artistry from God reigns on the stages here. May 9th was one of those days.

Photos by Mikhail Vilchuk.