On April 9, 1968, the Spartacus ballet, choreographed by the great Russian master Yury Grigorovich, premiered in the Bolshoi Theater. For four decades, it has been a defining work for the theater, and portrayed the excellence and athleticism of Bolshoi dancing.
The plot follows the exploits of Spartacus, the slave uprising leader in ancient Rome, and features a struggle between heroic gladiators and desecrate patricians – a class confrontation, that, in the 1960s and 1970s, was most appealing to the Soviet Union.
Curiously enough, “Spartacus", the ideological flagship of the Soviet ballet at the time, was staged by the Theater at its own risk, with the strong disapproval of the Soviet government. The first production of 1956, with Leonid Jakobson as choreographer, was very costly but never a huge success. The same fate befell the second one, choreographed by Igor Moiseev. Yury Grigorovich, in 1967, not yet the country’s number one choreographer, had not scored himself enough credibility points.
Despite all doubts, the production, choreographed by Yury Grigorovich, was an instant hit. The uniqueness of the ballet was brought about by the novelty of the approach. The new production largely stripped off pompous elements of antiquity, and the new libretto strayed from the original version, leaving only the crude matter: Crassus the “fascist," downright and cruel ruler, fighting against 'our guy' – the suppressed but rebellious slave Spartacus. The score, by Aram Khachaturian, was rewritten to produce more dynamic sequences, turning the plot into a mindbending detective story.
The swooping production of Grigorovich’s Spartacus produced a stir so big, it rivaled Swan Lake, the Bolshoi’s signature ballet.
“Time demanded new role models. And along came Spartacus and Crassus,” Mikhail Lavrovsky, the first Spartacus to perform in London in the early '60s recalls. The success was more prominent due to the legendary performances of Spartacus and Crassus by Vladimir Vasiliev and Māris Liepa respectively. The parts required so much professionalism and athleticism, no one has really been able to upstage the greatest dancers after they left the stage.
With them gone, the Soviet-era blockbuster Spartacus lost its verve. In the '70s, the ballet was on every month. Today, the shows are reduced to one or two a year, but it is still popular, and in search for a new Spartacus who’d get the old juices of the performance flowing.