Slaves of Love

Revolution and ardor share the stage as the Grigorovich Ballet presents 'Spartacus.'

Spartacus is not the first ballet you'd expect to see on Valentine's Day; the hero ends up getting crucified. Come to think of it, that might just resonate with some audience members on Valentine's Day. Still, it's mere coincidence that one of the signature works of the Soviet-era Bolshoi Ballet should tour through Tucson on February 14.

And yet love does make the world of rebellion in ancient Rome go 'round. While the ballet recounts an uprising of gladiators and slaves under the leadership of the young Thracian Spartacus, and their defeat by the Roman commander Crassus, the action is propelled in large part by two pairs of lovers: the sympathetic Spartacus and Phrygia, and the villainous Crassus and Aegina.

Think Gladiator on pointe.

A tribute to enslaved people who challenge their oppressors, Spartacus worked brilliantly as Soviet revolutionary mythology, and it works just as well for quite different reasons in the post-Soviet era.

Though rarely, if ever, performed by American companies, the 1968 version of Spartacus is one of the greatest and most characteristic works of Yuri Grigorovich, the celebrated if controversial artistic director and chief choreographer of the Bolshoi Ballet from 1964 to 1995.

Grigorovich's hand-picked company of young dancers, the Grigorovich Ballet, will present Spartacus in Tucson as part of the UApresents season. This is just one stop on the company's third American tour.

The history of this group can be slightly confusing. In August 1990, while Grigorovich was still affiliated with the Bolshoi, he founded "The Grigorovich Ballet--Bolshoi Theatre" to showcase on worldwide tours the best young dancers emerging from Russia's ballet schools, with guest principals drawn from the Bolshoi. But the company dissolved in 1995 upon Grigorovich's resignation from the theater. Things had become difficult for all major arts groups since the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of most state subsidies, and each company's cultural commissars began squabbling over how to survive and who should be in control.

Grigorovich, described in the Russian press as "dictatorial" (those clippings, not surprisingly, don't find their way into the press kit), left the Bolshoi under massive attack amid conflict in the company. Two years later, in the unlikely, remote spot of Krasnodar, South Russia, he obtained municipal funding to stage new productions with a company called Ballet Grigorovich, with none of the dancers older than 25. This is the company about to visit Tucson.

Despite the ill will of the early 1990s, Grigorovich retains an association with the Bolshoi. Just last year he revamped his Swan Lake for the company, newly emphasizing the role of the hero. That's one of the hallmarks of Soviet and post-Soviet ballet in general and Grigorovich's work in particular: Men get equal time in the spotlight. Indeed, Grigorovich's Spartacus choreography boasts a particular virility, and not just because it revolves around slaves and gladiators. The movement, particularly in crowd scenes, is like the flex of a beautiful muscle. And you won't find any dying swans among the female characters; Grigorovich's women dance with strength and resilience as well as grace.

Few people in Tucson have likely had a chance to see Spartacus, except perhaps on video, but classical-music lovers know at least a bit of the lengthy score by Aram Khachaturian, a Technicolor affair alternately lush and pulsating, and sometimes both at once.

One Tucsonan who does know Spartacus well is George Zoritch, who served on the University of Arizona dance faculty from 1972 until his retirement in 1987. That tenure followed a long career as a premier danseur noble with leading companies from the 1930s through '50s. Although born in Moscow in 1917, Zoritch never danced at the Bolshoi; he left the Soviet Union as a young man and performed throughout Europe until World War II, when he came to America.

Zoritch met Grigorovich around 1966, when the Bolshoi visited Los Angeles, where Zoritch then lived, and the two have remained on friendly terms ever since.

"Grigorovich is one of the greatest choreographers for the ballet," Zoritch states flatly, an opinion only reinforced when he saw Grigorovich's revamped Swan Lake in Moscow last June. "He made it so interesting, so innovative, so spectacular. He brought new blood into it. He's god's gift to the ballet world."

According to Zoritch, that Swan Lake was characteristic of the high standards Grigorovich applies to everything, including Spartacus. "He always produces the most magnificent pas de deux, the dances for two people, and it never repeats, it's always something fresh and new," Zoritch says. Does the choreographer have some secret technique? "Of course he has magnificent material to work with," Zoritch says, "but he's also very harsh. He's not the most popular with people, but the important thing is not what dancers think of him, but what the audience gets as a result."

Despite Grigorovich's fearsome reputation, Zoritch regrets never having had a chance to dance for him. "I come from another era," he says. "By the time I met him I was already out, I ended professional dancing in '62. I would have been delighted and thrilled to dance for him. I can accept discipline very easily. I may not like it; it depends on how I'm talked to. But it gives you fresh ideas, it gives you something to work at. He would be a most inspiring person to work for.

"He is very brave, always very alert and bushy-tailed. But he's not too old yet, only 60 or so." Informed that Grigorovich was actually born in 1927, Zoritch is taken aback. "He's 74? I can't believe it. I wouldn't believe he is so old. Well, it's not old the way he choreographs."

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