Preview: Bolshoi Ballet: Spartacus, Hippodrome, Birmingham

The slave gets all the moves
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Spartacus, which opens the Bolshoi's tour in Birmingham, has been a defining work for the Moscow company. For four decades, Yuri Grigorovich's Soviet-era blockbuster has displayed the scale and athleticism of Bolshoi dancing.

The current director, Alexei Ratmansky, is broadening the repertory, adding ballets in very different styles. He has been particularly keen to emphasise quick, small steps - the very opposite of Grigorovich's enormous leaps and lifts.

That scale is why Spartacus is so popular. It's epic ballet, with as much oomph as Ben-Hur's chariot race. The plot, a slave uprising in ancient Rome, sets heroic gladiators against decadent patricians - a class struggle that, in the 1950s and 1960s, appealed to both Hollywood and the Soviets. The score, by Aram Khachaturian, tells a simple story with swooping themes and explosive percussion.

The first production, made for the Kirov in 1956, was a moderate success. Grigorovich's 1968 version was an instant hit. Unusually for ballet, the men dominate: legions, gladiators, slaves, all testosterone and vigour. Spartacus, danced on this tour by Yuri Klevtsov and Dmitri Belogolovtsev, has five solos, besides duets and leading the corps.

Irek Mukhamedov, the Bolshoi's Spartacus from 1981 to 1990, first danced the role at 21. "When you're young," he says, "it's just getting through it. After the first act, you feel exhausted. We are professionals, so you pick up the pieces and keep going. But when you're not used to it, that's where the difficulty comes."

The choreography is filled with gigantic jumps, turns, spectacular partnering. "Everybody remembers the lift on one hand," he says. "If you're in control, then it works. If you're strong enough."

"As I got older," Mukhamedov says, "the most rewarding thing was being a hero on stage. You lead the other dancers, they follow you."

Tonight (0870 730 1234); then touring to Salford, Nottingham, Southampton and London