It must be hard being the Bolshoi Ballet. One of the oldest and greatest ballet companies in the world, they have a 200-year reputation of excellence. It must be even harder being the Bolshoi Ballet of Belarus, because in the wake of the Soviet Union being divided up like puzzle pieces, people just might confuse you with the Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow, the one who earned all those awards.
In Cairo, especially given the fact that the famous and truly excellent Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow just put on a production of Spartacus last year, it’s even easier to make that mistake. And given the fact that the Cairo Opera House is charging LE 300 for orchestra seats, amid their usual pomp and galas, if one didn’t know, one could ostensibly come out feeling just a bit cheated.
But one can always keep an open mind.
The show opens just as any high budget touring commercial dance performance might: A booming orchestra (the Cairo Opera Orchestra is fabulous in this production) sounds the chords of Aram Kharachaturian’s impressive 1954 score. The red curtain lifts to reveal 20 or so scantily clad men dancing in unison with swords and shields. They are the gladiators, led by an excited Crassus, the leader of their army and soloist. Steel uniforms gleaming, they look simply carnivorous.
Keeping one’s mind open, one might not immediately pass judgment on the heavy, uncomplicated movement of the male ensemble. Or the red lights placed below nearly every aspect of the stages’ pantheon redux set – including around eight gigantic statues of ancient Greece’s thinkers and war leaders – that make the entire mise-en-scène more obvious than elegiac.
Or the fact that the very theme, more specifically the way it is being presented, shares more in common with action movies than ballet.
Putting aside comparisons of any other Russian companies, the work plainly gets off to an incredibly banal start.
In a war stricken world, themes of violence, abuse and excess might have been more subtly approached by choreographer Valentin Yelizariev of Belarus. Yet for two of the three acts he presents rape scenes interspersed with bawdy carnival views, with the titillation of a Las Vegas cabaret. For the first two acts, Spartacus continually sidesteps any touching or symbolic depiction of violence, favoring a gross and blurry portrait of thick footed dancers pretending to be animalistic.
It is in these initial acts (thankfully short, though there are three of them) that the company works to establish the plot line: the ostentatious Rome is cruel and festive while their slaves lead undignified lives. There is a love between a certain strong and tall slave named Spartacus and his wife Phrygia, a bright hope. It is also the only beautiful dancing that appears for much of Act I and II.
Then there is the matter of Spartacus’ wife being taken hostage by the evil Crassus, who tries to have his way with her. This scene, one of many featuring sexual maltreatment of women, appears as redundant and predictable as those that came before it. Sentimentalized acting again becomes a substitute for actual expression, physical or otherwise. Yelizariev has attempted to stage the Dionysian and erotic, but ended up creating scenes that verge towards the clownery and pantomime.
This is especially the case in a duet between Phrygia and Crassus. Whereas the young dancer in the role of Crassus has “found his feet so to speak in weighty movement, the lanky prima ballerina flits around in unwieldy juxtaposition, feigning off his aggressive advances as a fly might elude a frog.
All this however, well, nearly all of it, is put in perspective by the amazing duets – the actual savior of the show, between Phrygia and Spartacus. In this case, the Cairo Opera is blessed to have famed Russian dancer Denis Klimuk taking on the role. His performance is replete with splendor, guiding the graceful prima ballerina to exaltation. Unfortunately even their movements cannot entirely shed the show’s forced and repetitive choreography. A brief solo by Klimuk in the last act, when he is almost broken by his heroic duties, reveals the true genius of his powers of interpretation.
How does it all end? We might suppose as predictably as it transpired, but thankfully, there is more redemptive attractions. For some reason, by the last act, the company or the choreography has found its voice. It makes symbolic as opposed to obvious choices, it conveys the heartbreak of war, class injustice, loss and separation through the medium of ballet.
Though without Klimuk, the soloist in the role of Phrygia rushes through her choreography, appearing more like an electrified nymph than oppressed woman (in mourning), settles down, and joins the wailing women. This last scene is peaceful and wistful, but also sad and appropriate. It pays to keep an open mind.
Spartacus is playing tonight, 8 pm, at the Cairo Opera Main Hall and Alexandria Opera House’s Sayed Darwish Theater on April 30 and May 1.