The Mikhailovsky Ballet's Spartacus is billed as a £1m production, and it's easy to see where the money went. It has 200 people on stage, big sets, lots of costumes, lots of gilding – from chariots to pillars to a general's gold lamé tights. If the kitchen sink were sparkly, it would be in here.
The company is named for its St Petersburg theatre (formerly known as the Maly), an opera and ballet house that celebrates its 175th anniversary this year. Until recently, the ballet company was best known for its repertory of rare 19th-century ballets. Now it has new funding, a new director in Kirov star Farukh Ruzimatov, and new productions.
Choreographer George Kovtun is clearly influenced by Russia's most famous Spartacus ballet, Yuri Grigorovich's version for the Bolshoi. Kovtun has similar big lifts and athletic poses, but surrounds them with fiddly detail.
Throughout, this Spartacus is poorly paced. Kovtun's numbers have spectacular endings – the villain's girl-friend is hurled through the air, caught by a bunch of centurions – but those finales come without much build-up. Duets are full of derivative steps and anticlimaxes.
Vyacheslav Okunev's set has detailed three-dimensional scenery, with moveable colonnades, garlands, giant masks. Gladiators are herded into cages, while decadent Romans parade round an elaborate marketplace. It's just as well that the plot is fairly simple, since Kovtun is too busy bringing on the crowds to do much storytelling. It's not until the final scenes that these characters really seem to engage with each other.
The crowds are huge. Besides the dancers, there are singers on stage. This is a choral version of Khachaturian's score, with some operatic soloists for the orgy scene. The music is the strongest thing in this production. The Mikhailovsky orchestra, conducted by Karen Durgarian, plays with bite and gusto.
Spartacus is Denis Matvienko, who has starred with both the Kirov and the Bolshoi. He's tireless, bounding through endless jumps and complex partnering. Marat Shimunov and Denis Mozorov show similar stamina as the patrician Crassus and as Spartacus's faithless friend Crixus. Kovtun shows off his dancers' athleticism, but gives them little chance to show character or individuality. Anastasia Matvienko adds some energy as Crassus's girlfriend.
The company's style shows strong Bolshoi influence, with high lifts, and big, emphatic dancing. Individual soloists stand out – I kept noticing one soldier, moving with dash and precision. There's confident dancing here, lost in the throng.
It's easy to see why Spartacus was chosen to open the company's first UK visit: as exotic spectacle, it shows the Mikhailovsky's new ambition. But for all its Cecil B DeMille extravagance, the show plods.
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