Spartacus review – a grand display of power from the Bolshoi's army

At the Bolshoi, size matters. The company’s name means “big” in Russian, and the Muscovites open their London summer season with a ballet that lives up to it. Yuri Grigorovich’s Soviet-era slave rebellion story is a signature work of the Bolshoi, one of the few companies that could offer such an army of identically drilled dancers, inexhaustible in grand displays of power and strength.

Men dominate the stage in one of ballet’s more masculine outings. Slaves and soldiers thrust forth limbs in tight unison, straight as their swords, and Denis Rodkin’s Spartacus takes on Roman consul Crassus (Artemy Belyakov). Rodkin makes a lukewarm entrance – it’s rare one need ask a Russian dancer for more melodrama, but Anastasia Denisova as his lover Phrygia has the idea, the tilt of her neck expressing a deep lament. Rodkin grows into the role though, his endless leaps becoming higher and wilder, his power and presence revving up.

It’s a marathon of a show over three acts, so perhaps it pays to pace yourself. The length and scale are not always at the service of the drama.

A marathon of a show … Denis Rodkin (Spartacus) and Anastasia Denisova (Phrygia) in the Bolshoi’s Spartacus. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Crassus and Spartacus spend a long time not fighting each other, then climactic moments pass in a flash. Anyway, it’s clear who should be ruling everyone in Rome: Svetlana Zakharova’s Aegina, Crassus’s courtesan. She is pure steel, wily and merciless. Her arms snake and curl luxuriously to frame her body, her fingers so long it takes an extra bar for them to catch up with the curve.

Grigorovich’s choreography comes in statements (as opposed to lyrical phrases) and the stage has a mid-century geometry about it. He uses blocks of dancers in perfect accord, such as the ice-cold courtesans, hypnotic like stony-faced sirens. Act II’s shepherds and shepherdesses are the only characters truly free, and they dance that freedom with almost vaudeville flair from the men and an incredible lightness from the women who whip, skip and flit.

The best thing about this ballet, and what drives it, is Khachaturian’s cinematic epic of a score, with its mighty percussion, great swooning love theme and touches of jazz. It’s the music that makes this period piece vigorously alive.

At Royal Opera House, London, until 10 August.

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