Spartacus, The Hippodrome, Birmingham

Women's turn to shine in Soviet-era blockbuster that's fit for a hero
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The Independent Culture

Trumpets blare, percussion rattles, and we're off. The Moscow-based Bolshoi Ballet opens its British regional tour with Spartacus, the biggest of Soviet-era blockbusters. Everything about Yuri Grigorovich's 1968 ballet is enormous, from the size of the cast to the swooning Khachaturian score. On this first night, however, the company's dancing looked a few sizes too small.

Not in numbers, certainly. Taking the story of Spartacus, the gladiator who led a slave revolt in ancient Rome, Grigorovich - formerly the company's director - takes every opportunity to bring on hordes of dancers. Roman soldiers strut through a balletic goose-step, slave girls lament, rebelling slaves hurl themselves into the air with the joy of freedom.

Traditionally, the Bolshoi move on a large scale, with sweeping line and expansive gestures. Grigorovich displayed that bigness in simple, heroic outlines. Spartacus jumps hugely, turns fiercely, leads his men and loves his wife; he has no flaws, and shows his greatness of character by the openness of his dancing. It isn't about subtlety: there isn't any. But the momentum of the Bolshoi in full cry can make Spartacus very enjoyable in the theatre.

The first-cast Dmitri Belogolovtsev can get through the hero's jumps, his one-handed lifts, but he can't make them superhuman. And Spartacus should be superhuman. The ballet depends on generosity of temperament, on breadth of gesture. When his wife, Phrygia, is threatened by slave-drivers, Spartacus protects her by the simple expedient of lifting her above his head, safely out of reach. Belogolovtsev lifts Anna Antonicheva cleanly, but there's little triumph or defiance in it.

Antonicheva is an angular Phrygia, with sharp lines in her lamenting dances. This reduces the contrast with the wicked courtesan Aegina, here danced by the glacial Maria Allash. As Crassus, leader of the Roman army, Vladimir Neporozhny suggests a petulant aristocrat.

The Bolshoi is changing. Since Grigorovich stepped down as director in the 1990s, the company has focused on other choreographers, other ballets; its dancers are getting lighter and thinner. When the male corps charge on, battalions of them, they're still forceful, but the stage isn't quite so awash with testosterone. After a stodgy first act, the company's men showed increasing bite, with some gleeful displays in the shepherd scenes.

Spartacus is traditionally a display for the male corps, but at this performance the women came off best. As languid Roman courtesans, they show a shared sense of style, the same big, limpid line. They're good as shepherdesses, too, stamping and gesticulating.

There's not much difference between Grigorovich's choreography for happy shepherds and decadent orgies. He sticks to very similar choreography - the big jumps, the turns, the knees-up. The difference is in Khachaturian's score, the Bolshoi's own orchestra snortingly conducted by Pavel Klinichev.