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Arts: Dance - Romans, slaves and a captive audience

DESPITE BEING impaled nightly into martyrdom, Yuri Grigorovich's Spartacus for the Bolshoi has been going since 1968 and grows funnier by the year. As a stirring blockbuster, in which the Soviet-correct message shines bright, it was a hit from the start. Good and evil confront each other in absolute mirror symmetry: Spartacus the slave is set against Crassus the Roman oppressor, each with a girl to provide love interest (and erotic choreography); there are two duels, even two orgies.

Grigorovich's images are crude and unequivocal; the Romans are forever goose-stepping and Nazi-saluting, while their captors begin as a demoralised clump, torsos bowed. Khatchaturian's overblown music alternates swelling lyricism with a inexorable percussion that transforms the Bolshoi orchestra into a triumphalist martial machine.

It is socialist-realist art at its most blustery, its epic muscle matching the proletarian heroes carved as stone statues in Soviet town squares. This is acceptable, given that the Bolshoi can produce larger-than-life performances. That said, Dmitri Belogolovstev, the first-night Spartacus, has an unexpectedly light build, and perhaps Irek Mukhamedov, watching in the audience, and definitively engraved in our minds as a former Spartacus, could have coached him in the gob-stopping acrobatics he used to include. Even so, Belogolovstev conquers huge swathes of air and has strength to spare for the massive overhead lifts requiring him to carry Anna Antonicheva's Phrygia like a wooden plank, horizontally, vertically, upside down.

But it took the second cast's Andrei Uvarov and his tremendous athleticism and conviction to bring Spartacus fully to life. He manages to differentiate the shifts of emotion from one danced soliloquy to another, overcoming the choreography's vapid repetitiveness. The pain of captivity seems to weight every fibre of his body, so that when he wraps his prisoner's chain round his neck, you really think it will become his noose. When he dies, thrust high on spears, the effect is horrific, contrasting with his previous blaze of vitality and charisma.

Mark Peretokin's Crassus in the first cast made a powerful impact: uniformly vile and gloriously blond. For Phrygia, I preferred Anna Antonicheva and her heartfelt lyricism to Inna Petrova who is petite and pretty, but seemed to go into actor's automatic pilot. Nadezhda Gracheva, as Crassus's moll Aegina, sequinned red nipple firmly in place, had all the requisite sluttishness and plenty of technical ease for the circus splits and cartwheels. Maria Allash in the role didn't make you sit up and take as much notice.

The opposing hordes march and surge and sweep you along in the rush. But vulgarity is also everywhere, forming cracks that threaten to bring down the ballet. You can hardly believe the ridiculous floorshow that is the Roman orgy, curly-wigged lovelies prancing in a chorus line, or Aegina writhing on the floor as Crassus twitches around her. I could go on. Spartacus continually teeters into broad comedy, which is why I think it's a great evening out.

Performances 15, 22, 23 & 24 July (0171-632 8300)