Dance: This is ballet for the big guys

Spartacus Coliseum, London 13 Different Keys Atlantis Building, London
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The Independent Culture
If you could see just one production in the Bolshoi's current season, it would have to be Spartacus, that stirring display of Soviet- approved mythology exclusive to Eastern bloc repertory. It has existed in some 30 versions since Khatchaturian wrote its gloriously brassy score in 1956, but the one that has stuck is Yury Grigorovich's, for the Bolshoi. No one who saw it has ever forgotten hunky Vladimir Vasiliev as the first Spartacus in 1968, still less a vaulting young Irek Mukhamedov in the 1980s, before he made his leap to the West. You thought ballet was for little people ? You won't think so after this. But you might also find yourself having a secret giggle on the side - a surprising response to so grim a tale, perhaps, but a natural reaction to militaristic bombast. Goose-stepping legions, clanking gladiators, toga'd patricians: shades of Up Pompeii loom at every turn.

If the action is cartoon-stylised, the characters too are symbols of qualities and forces, rather than personalities. It's the athletics that steal the show. Crassus, the Roman oppressor, moves in rigid lines, propelled in startling vertical twizzles that land him back on the same axis to perform still more twizzles from a standing start. Spartacus, the rebel slave, moves in wide circles, his flight to freedom expressed by a range of increasingly heroic leaps, some so high and so fast that it's hard to believe there's no springboard hidden in the wings. The very light physique of Tuesday's Spartacus, Dmitri Belogelovstev, made his assault on the airspace all the more astounding.

The love interest was impressive too. Anna Antonicheva's Phrygia, the loyal wife of Spartacus, had nobility and pathos in spades; Nadezhda Gracheva, as Crassus's bint Aegina, made a very classy Roman fleshpot. Jewelled nipple jutting proud of her skimpy toga, she writhed and wriggled and fingered her own curves with Monroe-esque delight. But again, when it came to whipping up the rebel slaves to an orgy (Aegina's ploy to weaken the enemy in the field), unintended comedy reared its head once more, with prancing chorus lines of curly-wigged lovers more likely bound for San Francisco circa 1968 than a Roman battlefield. Design is not the Bolshoi's strength, as the shoddy backdrops confirmed.

But there is great stagecraft in the tableaux: Crassus standing on what looks to be a heavily armoured chariot, till it bursts into life as two dozen helmeted soldiers; the slain Spartacus hoist aloft a dozen 4ft spears; and the anguished final glimpse of Phrygia, offering up her husband's body to the gods above a sea of grieving hands. Proletarian takes on his oppressors and loses his life for his pains, but he joins the pantheon of heroes, and thus triumphs over death. As overblown Soviet rhetoric, Spartacus is a piece of living history. As rumbustious entertainment, it's also a good night out.

The East End of London doesn't get much in the way of live performance, but lack of theatres is no obstacle to Artangel, the outfit that commissions site-specific work in interesting spaces. Luckily, in the case of 13 Different Keys, the site wasn't too specific. An inspired collaboration between choreographer Siobhan Davies and dancers from the opposing camps of contemporary dance and ballet, it was originally intended to take place in one of the new Jubilee Line stations. But that's still being built. So the project switched to the nearest spatial equivalent, the Atlantis Building which forms part of the old Truman brewery in Brick Lane.

Cavernous and lit by high windows, this one-time beer store made a handsome space for dance. Davies had devised a stage of two catwalks in the shape of an X. The audience crowded round its edges, like extras in a Halifax ad, and the idea was that people walked about during the performance to catch a different view - easier said than done, in the event. British reticence kept the audience largely rooted, even when they couldn't see much at all.

To Davies's boundless credit, the assumed clash between classical and contemporary styles of movement proves a chimera. What emerges in her hands is a richly detailed hybrid that takes the best from both. Deborah Bull, from the Royal Ballet, proves especially adept at moulding her Cechetti- trained body to the freer scooping shapes of Davies's choreography. Her opposite number, Gill Clarke, a Davies veteran, seems to grow in balletic grace to match.

To the plangent strains of Marin Marais, played live on viol and harpsichord, five dancers whose training is worlds apart harmonised happily. You can spot the odd pure ballet step (Jenny Tattersall's puckish little entrechats, Bull's long, langorous arabesques) but essentially, this is vintage Davies: ever inventive, beautifully paced movement that seems to melt the hard surface of the floor.

`Spartacus': Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300) Thurs-Sat; `13 Different Keys': 148 Brick Lane, E1 (0171 387 0031) tonight & Mon

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