Ballet protagonist as Russian national hero

Having exchanged his native Leningrad for Moscow, and having been appointed Bolshoi Theatre chief choreographer, he immediately became one of the pacesetters for contemporary art. Ballet, it might seem, had always been part of culture, but this was something else — Grigorovich's arrival renewed our ideas of our own cultural legacy.

Spartacus, as is known, was produced twice at the Bolshoi Theatre before Grigorovich, first by Igor Moiseyevy, then by Leonid Jakobson — both well-known masters. The same grandiose music by Aram Khachaturyan, the same legendary stage, virtually the same dancers in the lead roles, and the same mass of historical parallels: the heavy millstones of ancient history turned on stage, and, in the name of that very same freedom, the Thracian Spartacus lost his life, submitting to tragic inevitability. With the appearance of Grigorovich, it was as if all these truths spoke anew. It was as if a different age had set in, a different ballet civilization and this was felt immediately — both in the auditorium and by professionals. Historical and philosophical definitions do not change — what changes is the way they are presented.

But first we should remember what Spartacus meant for the Russian people. It is by no means fortuitous that the best loved Russian football team bears this famous name. Spartacus was identified in the Russian mind with Alexander Matrosov who, during the Second World War, threw himself on to a German pill-box, blocking the machine-gun with his own body, to allow his unit to advance; or Nikolai Gastello, who carried out a suicide attack in his plane on an enemy echelon; or the collective farm worker who led his horses out of a burning stable. He represents fearlessness and daring, but also an extraordinary inner freedom. For the Russian man, outer constraints notwithstanding, freedom is an inner, spiritual quality, it carries a sense of his immortality and innocence.

Is Spartacus, perhaps, one of the Russian saints?

Vladimir Vasiliev as Spartacus. Photo by Elena Fetisova.

It was as a saint, in fact, that the Russian reader saw Spartacus, the hero of Raffaello Giovagnoli’s famous novel of the same name, which first appeared in translation, in Russia, in 1881 and was immediately popular. And again historical parallels: lvan Bolotnikov, Stenka Razin, Emelyan Pugachyov, very different figures of course and with different behavioral motives, but all, like Spartacus, charismatic and dedicated in their defense of personal freedom and the ability to carry with them, as we used to say until quite recently, ‘the masses’ The novel is about a revolutionary from the ancient world, a prisoner gladiator who rose up against oppression. In Russia, there were two cult books about ‘revolutionaries’ — Giovagnoli’s Spartacus and Ethel Voynich’s Gadfly. They were both an appeal to the struggle for social injustice. Spartacus Grigorovich produced, The Gadfly, he had thought about producing in his youth, and had got as far as writing the libretto (together with ballet critic Poel Karp).

What was the immediate stimulus which prompted Aram Khachaturyan to write his ballet in 1954? Apart from a light Armenian coloring which gives the music a particular — in the words of Grigorovich himself —‘romantic sound’ beyond its dance rhythms, which are so easily assimilated in dance, one was conscious that a different, triumphant force was asserting itself. Where did this mood come from? From the recently, ended war, perhaps, or were these the revolutionary motifs which, in one form or another, always visit a major composer?

What was the immediate stimulus which prompted Yuri Grigorovich to create his ballet in 1968? Outer reason was a commission, the Theatre had need of a heroic work. But there are commissions and commissions. His observations and thoughts on the matter had occurred at a considerably earlier date: as a young dancer, he had ‘absorbed’ this music and story through his own nerves and muscles. In the very first Leningrad production of Spartacus by Jakobson, soloist Yuri igorovich, not being a heroic dancer, had performed the part of the Retiarius, an expressive ballet episode in which he, a naked gladiator-slave, armed with net and trident, fights for his life against a marmilon, a gladiator-slave with a short sword. The Roman audience was not interested in death as such, what it demanded to see was a refined murder and struggle for life. Was it, perhaps, then that the «inner heroic spirit» a la Grigorovich materialized, to which Vladimir Vasiliev was later to give form so brilliantly on stage? It was then the realization came that this brilliant music needed to be mounted and danced in a different way. For Grigorovich’s generation, a man and his emotions were the main criteria of life. He was not going to allow historical props to swallow up his art and his spirit, “vase painting” was OK, but only on vases. Without doubt, it was at that time too that his assimilation of the music occurred — for the choreographer the ear was just as important as the imagination and dance. Grigorovich was prepared for his future conversation with Aram Khachaturyan which was to take place almost twenty years later. And at first these were difficult conversations — their significance and intent, however paradoxical, was to defend the music from its author, who was used to a specific style for its embodiment in ballet.

Grigorovich, the path-breaking choreographer, had his own artistic strategy and his own totally innovative approach to scenario. The flow of the action is intercepted by the monologues of the four main characters, who appear to be commenting on events. The alternation of direct action with self-commentary, the departure of the epos into the sphere of psychological reflection — this had never been done before in ballet. It became necessary to make several cuts to the music, a re-arrangement of episodes, everything had to be subordinate to an integrated, dramatic through-line, “organizing the action around the theme of the uprising”. Grigorovich wrote very expressively about his conversations with Khachaturyan and from them it is clear how acute, at first, was the problem of mutual understanding, how the «battle for the notes» unfolded. The Bolshoi Company reacted, at first, without particular enthusiasm: yet another attempt: Spartacus — we've already danced that... But this was just to begin with, before the first rehearsals with soloists started, and before the rumor, mixed with concealed enthusiasm, began to circulate in the Theatre — with the new Spartacus, everything will be quite different.

By the time of the. dress rehearsal, there were rumors going round in Moscow too. A dress rehearsal is, perhaps, both more difficult and more important than even the premiére, there are too many of «one’s own» there, who will notice that to which the spectator will pay no attention. But it is at the dress rehearsal that first impressions arise, and ‘opinions’ are formed. The theatre is packed, heads hang over the upper tier and the gallery. Ministerial bureaucrats are as guarded as eagles on a mountain peak. Famous ballerinas and dancers are majestically concentrated. An expectantsilence — and after the first e pisodes, the applause grows from scene to scene. The transformation of silence into a stormy ovation was marvelously described by Vlas Doroshevich, when Chaliapin was on tour at La Scala, appearing in Boito’s Méphistophéles.

Ivan Vasiliev as Spartacus. Photo by Natalia Voronova.

... And so started in those April days of 1968 — the unforgettable flights of Vladimir Vasiliev, Ekaterina Maximova's quivering tenderness; Maris Liepa’s stately walk and Nina Timofeyeva's triumphant glitter. And all those who danced after them, in the next performance — Mikhail Lavrovsky and Natalia Bessmertnova, Svetlana Adyrkhaeva and Borfis Akimov. And after them, all who followed, participants in the ‘freedom movement’ under the name of Yuri Grigorovich's Spartacus. And ever new forces are joining this legendary movement, it is already the 21st century and it appears to be unstoppable.

Sergei Esin
text from the handbook,
published on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the ballet, 2008