Spartacus, Royal Opera House, London
Coppelia, Royal Opera House, London

The Bolshoi's back, as big as ever, with a bellicose, muscular blockbuster and a classic romcom that's enormous fun

Most ballet companies are named after a place or a person. Bolshoi means simply "big", and that applies as much to its home theatre in Moscow (colossal), the number of its dancers (hundreds) and the scale of its heroic technique.

The tag might also be reasonably attached to the vaunting confidence with which the company has returned to London. On its last visit, in 2007, it was newly emerged from the doldrums and pinning its hopes on a handful of very young stars. One of them was a teenage Ivan Vasiliev, the Belarussian with a jump that could start a jet engine. Now he's back, at 21 considerably broader of shoulder and chunkier of thigh, heading up the season in the mightiest blockbuster of the Bolshoi's armoury: Spartacus.

Yuri Grigorovich's 1968 ballet, a favourite of the Soviet regime, is one for the boys, stuffed with the kind of macho imagery that's normally outside ballet's remit: lunging gladiators, goose-stepping legionaries and stagefuls of jostling breastplates, held edge to edge to form symmetrical hillocks of steel. There is also a spectacular death, as the slave-hero Spartacus is finally cornered, skewered and raised aloft on a thicket of Roman spears.

Subtlety has no place in this bellicose hokum, you may not be surprised to learn, but it's crucial that the dancers look as if they believe in it. And they do. Lofty Alexander Volchkov makes a superbly aloof Roman general, his prancing jumps and turns suggesting vanity as well as pride and power. Maria Allash, as the wily courtesan who has her eye on the Roman top table, is an outrageous amalgam of curves, slink and slither, while Nina Kaptsova, as Spactacus's slave-girl sweetheart, manages to create a more spiritual allure. The pair's love duet, in the lull before the fatal battle, becomes in this casting the most convincing expression of post-coital uxoriousness in dance, helped by the swoon and backwash of Khachaturian's best ever tune.

It's hard to decide, ultimately, which takes the laurels, Vasiliev or the orchestra. No prizes for niceties of shading in either case. But for sheer lift-you-off-your seat brassy blast, the Bolshoi Orchestra's playing under Pavel Sorokin is superlative. Vasiliev, for his part, must surely be breaking some kind of land-speed record with his repeat slicing leaps. His shape-holding, mid-air, is extraordinary. And his turns on the spot practically smoke. Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is the muscle-dense sculptural quality of his every move, rendering him a granite-hewn colossus from ancient times. With that body, Romeo is already a no-no, so where does young Vasiliev go from here?

Coppelia, in sharp contrast, was next up: a Petipa classic now rarely mounted in Britain, though it's still a staple in Russia and eastern Europe. Perhaps our ballet companies fear the perceived twee-factor of a romcom with so many pretty frocks, pretty peasant dances, mechanical toys and a girl who pretends to be one.

Well, they shouldn't. The Bolshoi's staging, new last year, draws on notations of the Mariinsky's 1894 production (so it's as authentic as an old ballet can be), but is danced with a freshness and exuberance that makes it both funny and enormous fun.

But then, only the Bolshoi has Natalia Osipova. Were you to invent the perfect Swanilda, you'd still fall short of hers: a paragon of strong feet and endless legs, raven hair and snowy skin, and the impish air of the naughtiest girl in the school (always the most attractive of heroines, in my book).

Osipova floats, she flirts, she mimics crabby old men, she stamps her foot, and everything she does puts a silly grin on your face, and keeps it there. Again, too, the orchestral playing (conductor Igor Dronov) is a treat, cherishing Delibes' delicate moments, storming in the mazurka.

Season runs to 8 Aug (020-7304 4000).

Next Week:

A former Spartacus, Carlos Acosta, shows his mettle in his own show at Sadler's Wells

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