First Night: The Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Opera House

4.00

Bigger, bolder, stronger: Bolshoi returns to London with an epic 'Spartacus'

The Bolshoi Ballet is one of the world's great companies, among the best-known names in dance. Anticipation has been high as the Moscow dancers return to London for a three-week season, with fans rushing to the box office. Russian ballet companies being famously unpredictable, the same fans have been rushing back at each rumour of changed casting, determined to get the right stars.

For most, the right star is Ivan Vasiliev, who danced the title role in Spartacus on the season's first night. Vasiliev made a big impact at the last Bolshoi visit three years ago, as a teenage virtuoso. Now 21, he's opening the season in one of the biggest roles in the Bolshoi repertory.

The hype, and the real excitement, were feverish. Both turned out to be justified.

Vasiliev is spectacular: in technique and in authority. He's physically stronger now, broader in the shoulders, with wild eyes and wild curling hair. Perhaps most surprisingly, he makes a natural Spartacus.

Though Yuri Grigorovich's ballet is still one of the Bolshoi's defining works, the company has moved away from his blockbusting style in recent years. Spartacus demands enormous power – huge leaps, one-handed lifts – while today's Bolshoi men often have a slighter, perhaps nimbler build. Yet this is still an iconic role. Foreign dancers such as Carlos Acosta have been eager to try it.

Vasiliev, trained not in Moscow but at the Belorussian Ballet School, certainly has the jumps. London audiences have already seen his soaring leaps. Now they're even loftier, with a plush spring as he leaves the ground. He holds shapes brilliantly in the air, arching tightly mid-flight. Lifted by his own army, Vasiliev's Spartacus looks like a figurehead, or a Soviet poster.

He also developed greater stamina. The extravagant Bolshoi lifts are confident – even the jaw-dropping one-hander where Nina Kaptsova, as Spartacus's wife Phrygia, balances on his upstretched palm, her feet higher than her head.

If Spartacus needs brute strength, it also needs sincerity. Grigorovich's choreography is not subtle. Noble gladiators oppose wicked, wicked Romans. Spartacus is generous in victory, only defeated through treachery. His opponent Crassus is given to sneakiness, cruelty and notably camp orgies. Where Phrygia is noble and devoted, Crassus's mistress Aegina waylays and seduces the rebellious slaves, doing a pole dance in triumph. Aram Khachaturian's music blares with trumpets and jangles with percussion.

In other words, Spartacus is thoroughly kitsch. It's survived this long because the Bolshoi danced it with innocent ardour, heroic conviction: look knowing in this, and the whole thing would sink. But today's Bolshoi dancers haven't grown up under the shadow, and the protection, of a Soviet state; they've lived with capitalism and danced a much wider repertory than their predecessors. Can they still believe in Spartacus?

On recent visits, the conviction had definitely wavered. I've seen some stodgy performances, when sagging energy gave you all too much time to notice the ballet's sillinesses. This time, the Bolshoi has gone back to believing in it. Gladiators and shepherdesses hurl themselves into Grigorovich's big, repetitive steps, dancing with abandon. There are still weaker moments; despite the best efforts of Alexander Volchkov and Maria Allash as Crassus and Aegina, the Roman orgies do go on.

Vasiliev's hero pulls it all together. Grigorovich's Spartacus turns to rebellion after being forced to kill a fellow gladiator. In his big solo, he reaches out with both hands. With Vasiliev, it's the gesture of a man with blood on his hands. His horror leads directly into the clenched-fist gesture of rebellion. Vasiliev does go over the top in the final battle, but he can also find subtleties even in this choreography. The whirling turns can slow, becoming weighty as he agonises over the future.

The other principals are strong. Kaptsova is a long-limbed Phrygia, going from gently drooping lines to heroic resolution. Maria Allash has huge fun as Aegina, flashing wicked smiles in all directions. Alexander Volchkov struts through the goose-stepping Roman steps, with a touch of mania in his fight against Spartacus. Pavel Sorokin conducts the orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre in a gleeful performance of Khachaturian's flamboyant score.

Bolshoi season runs until 8 August. Box office 020 7304 4000

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence