Spartacus – Love and War on Stage – April 2024

Leonid Jakobson’s version of “Spartacus” is a monumental, three-act stylistic ballet that immediately carries the viewer to ancient Greece through its unique choreographic style. Inspired, it is said, by the haut-reliefs of the Pergamon Altar, this “Spartacus” is littered with parallel (turned in) leg and arm positions intended to reproduce the two-dimensional images on Etruscan vases, scandalous positions in their heyday which veer far from the classical lexicon. There is not a pointe shoe in sight. Instead, it is as if an ancient Roman carving has come to life.

Compared to Grigorovich’s version, this libretto differs greatly in terms of which sections the dance actually depicts on stage. The ballet opens to an unending parade of countless legionnaires returning from battle with large crowds cheering them on in a majestic, celebratory mood. The gladiator’s arena comes to life in Act I, and the overindulgent indoor Saturnalia scene in Act II show Aegina and Harmodius in a seemingly drunken orgy. Act III focuses on Harmodius’s betrayal of Spartacus, and the tactics and final defeat the latter, but with much of the “battle” shown in frozen diorama-like “fresco” scenes that relay the steps of battle (from a few men down, to everyone but Spartacus dead), rather than actual moving action except for Spartacus’s actual moment of defeat.

On 03 April, Andrey Ermakov danced a noble Spartacus, infusing the role less with vim and vigor than with quiet determination and pride. Valeria Kuznetsova, an impossibly tall and long-limbed Perm Academy graduate, debuted in the role of Phrygia, Spartacus’ wife. With height that matches Ermakov’s stature well on stage, she did justice to the wrenching monologue in the final scene, a dramatic challenge for even seasoned ballerinas.

Renata Shakirova, the Mariinsky’s latest appointment to prima ballerina status just last week, debuted in the role of the courtesan Aegina. Fitting of her new status, Shakirova’s electric vivacity shown in the solo sections, and her sensual, teasing nature easily drew Alexander Sergeev’s feeble Harmodius into her lair. Sergeev’s fumbling steps and spellbound gaze suggested a man too weak to resist the charms of this steel-willed lady. Aegina’s devotion is absolute: she runs to Crassus arms to share Spartacus’ secret plans, whispering in his ear to ensure her own position –and that of her lover/leader– will remain stable.

Nikolai Naumov, a veteran Mariinsky dancer who now performs leading acting roles, appeared majestic and powerful as the Roman General Crassus. Crowned with a golden laurel wreath and a red satin sash crossing his chest, Naumov’s Crassus exuded the ambitious, stern nature of a wise, wealthy statesman and successful army general. As lowly servants slowly fanned him high up on a balcony, he displayed proud indifference while casually giving a thumbs up (or down) to declare the fate of the warriors in the arena below. The props for this scene include wine goblets and trays of invisible food, but the performers included the clever addition of actual grapes (at least, in this performance) which they nibbled as Naumov’s Crassus decreed who might live or die, underscoring his extravagant, spoiled lifestyle. When lying with Aegina on the downstage lounge, he hand-fed her the same morsels as they pawed each other, portraying a spicy, indulgent eroticism.

In this production, both costumes and staging highlight the stark class difference between the slaves and Crassus’ empire:  Crassus and Aegina in gold accents, the slaves in near rags armed, in some cases, with just a sword. Spartacus, Harmodius and Phrygia in simple cloth or potato sack clothing. It is easy to understand where the power lies in pure visual terms.

While some have criticized the Jakobson production for its paltry dance vocabulary – a valid point for staunch classicists—this ballet nonetheless provides an intense performance experience that depicts history in clear terms. The athleticism, beauty, passion, and angst of the performers is palpable throughout the three hour spectacle. If you travel to St. Petersburg, this is a production you will not want to miss.


All photos copyright and courtesy of the Mariinsky Theatre, by Natasha Razina.