British access to Moscow's premier ballet company is usually limited to London seasons, but this year in addition to a Coliseum visit in July comes a tour of three signature ballets that set off round the country last week. The tour opened - rather boldly, given that Swan Lake was a more obvious bet - with Spartacus, a stirring display of Soviet-sanctioned mythology tinged with shades of Up Pompeii!.
The ballet has been through a number of versions since Aram Khachaturian wrote its rambunctious score in 1956, but this one, by Yuri Grigorovich, is the version that has stuck. Vladimir Vasiliev, its first star, bowled London audiences over in 1969, and a young Irek Mukhamedov did the same in the 1980s. Spartacus makes you forget that ballet was ever about fairies. This is dance machismo at its most extreme, with goose-stepping Roman legions, clanking gladiators, and some of the most strenuous athletic demands ever made on stage performers.
The story is a Boys' Own fantasy: the slave-leader Spartacus - forced by his Roman oppressors to murder a friend in gladiatorial combat - incites his fellow slaves to revolt, and would have triumphed but for the wiles of his opponent's favourite whore, who weakens his men before a crucial battle by laying on an orgy. Just as the action is cartoon-stylised, so the characters are more ciphers than personalities, conceived to speak across the vast space of Moscow's Bolshoi theatre. Inevitably, the acting looks overblown on a smaller British stage, where it's the athletics that deliver. As the Roman leader Crassus, Vladimir Neporozhny asserts authority by cutting fast corkscrew diagonals across the stage, while wild-eyed Spartacus Dmitri Belogolovtsev makes his bid for freedom in a range of increasingly astounding leaps. Anna Antonicheva's Phrygia is all pliant beauty and sincerity, and Maria Allash makes a very minxy Aegina, her eroticised gymnastics almost blush-making.
But there are other reasons not to miss this remarkable spectacle, not least its moments of pure stagecraft: 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 on a dozen 5ft spears; and the anguished final glimpse of Phrygia, offering up her husband's corpse to the gods above a sea of grieving hands. As popular Soviet rhetoric, Spartacus is a piece of living history. As entertainment on a heroic scale, it beats the circus.
The Bolshoi tour continues to The Lowry, Salford (0870 767 5790) Tue to Sat; Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham (0115 989 5555) 10-15 April; Mayflower, Southampton (023 8071 1811) 18-22 AprilReuse content