Ruptured Order

The Cairo Opera Ballet Company’s production of Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus left the audience with some intriguing questions.

Published in Al Ahram Weekly

The ballet Spartacus takes us back to 73-71 BCE and the revolt of the slaves against the tyranny of the Roman Empire. Led by Spartacus, a Thracian slave and gladiator, the uprising involved 100,000 gladiators at one point, becoming a grave menace to many Roman governors.

However, in 71 BCE, Spartacus was defeated by Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the wealthiest and most powerful commanders of the Roman Empire. The story of Spartacus was first recorded by the historians Plutarch and Appian, with writers over the centuries that followed adding many mythic elements. Spartacus’s story, the story of an iconic revolutionary hero and fighter against the Roman regime, has become fertile soil for many writers, composers and filmmakers.

Aram Khachaturian composed the music for the ballet Spartacus in 1954. Written in a direct and comprehensible style and favoured by the Soviet regime, Khachaturian’s music received immediate recognition in the shape of the Stalin Prize. The ballet premiered in 1956, with choreography by Leonid Yakobson. It was performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1958 with choreography by Igor Moiseev, who was one of the most important figures in 20th-century ballet, yet it was not until the 1968 production, choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich, that the ballet received international acclaim.

Grigorovich worked extensively on the theatrical elements of the ballet, building up a lucid dramaturgical net within which each character carries distinctive psychological traits. For Grigorovich and his followers, Spartacus ‘s dialectical impact was reached through its dramatic clarity.

A new vision of Spartacus came in the 1980s, one put forward by Valentin Yelizariev that stressed the philosophical and emotional elements of the story. In April 2009, Yelizariev brought his production to Egypt, the ballet being performed by the National Academic Bolshoi Ballet Theatre of the Republic of Belarus, of which Yelizariev has been artistic director and chief choreographer since 1992.

Much of the choreography in the production performed by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, also choreographed and directed by Yelizariev, reflects ideas taken from the Belarus production. However, the use of the same choreography does not mean creating a replica of the Belarus production, only with Egyptian dancers. On the contrary, while challenged by unavoidable comparisons between the two productions, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company confronted the demands of the piece in a performance of the utmost precision, adding their own artistic style and individuality.

Mahmoud Haggag, the set designer, has created a completely new set for this production, while at the same time referring to the Roman period of the work. To give a new perspective and additional depth, Haggag places a gradual semi-circular elevation on the stage, running from extreme left, through up stage, to extreme right. Thanks to the use of clever design elements and back panoramas, the Cairo Opera Ballet’s production of Spartacus stressed the visual aspects of the piece. Haggag’s design efforts were emphasised by particularly well-designed lighting in most scenes, adding extra credit to the production’s aesthetics.

Yelizariev’s choreography looks for ideas in Khachaturian’s music, finding in it a skeleton upon which to build human images. Instead of following the consecutive logic of storytelling, the choreographer truncated the music into emotional segments, tableaux representing images of human reality.

The representation of Spartacus, slavery, humiliation and oppression in Act I of the ballet, for example, was used to contrast with the feast of Crassus in Act II, a scene underlining the moral corruption of the Roman Empire. The uprising in Act I also took us to the victory of Spartacus in Act II, this being accompanied by a strong percussion section that took the audience through to Spartacus’s defeat in Act III and the final requiem.

The “Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia,” sometimes referred to as the love theme from Spartacus, is one of the ballet’s crucial scenes. Its execution can be a challenge to any choreographer and any dancers. Spartacus, danced by Hany Hassan, and Phrygia, danced by Olga Drida, did not disappoint in their affectionate pas de deux. Their dance radiated tenderness and eroticism, as they danced to the lyrical melody of the scene, said to be reminiscent of Armenian laments.

Hassan’s posture was as strong as his movements, a more than adequate fit for the force represented by Spartacus the hero. However, his athleticism was sometimes stronger than his individuality. Drida was a highlight of the evening. She is a perfectionist in control of all her movements, performing her character with artistic aptness, human passion and personal sincerity. The whole love scene unfolded in a close relationship with the Cairo Opera Orchestra under the baton of Nayer Nagui, making it an astonishing experience.

Overall, Yelizariev’s Spartacus avoids story telling, preferring instead to convey the narrative through contrasting images and distinct music. Khachaturian’s extravaganza of a musical score is generated from easily comprehensible and direct harmonies, giving a stabbing kind of musical language. The love scene employs music of a sweeping lyricism, while the music for the feast of Crassus is sharp and rhythmic. The composer’s vitality renews itself within each scene, adding leitmotifs and folk colourisation.

Following the music, each tableau drawn by Yelizariev carried a specific meaning, with the accumulation of the tableaux, and the overlapping concepts and contrasting realities they conveyed, sending clear messages to the audience. Through this approach, Yelizariev went beyond the limitations of the Spartacus story, addressing humanity as a whole, regardless of time and place. He was able to use the ballet to speak to oppressed and oppressors, tyrants and victims, revolutionaries and those upholding the corruption of the regime, through a series of strong comparisons, daring scenes and artistic realisations.

One of the most powerful features of Yelizariev’s choreography lies in its symmetry, it being built upon a clear spatial distribution of dancers along with the repetition of key movements within geometrical parameters. In most of the scenes, there was a perfect equilibrium between the two sides of the stage and a kaleidoscope-like harmony.

In a figurative work, bodily and group symmetries form a strong vocabulary, underlining the artistic power, balance and aesthetic stability of the design. This geometry brought especially impressive results in the group scenes, though in the same way that the use of symmetrical shapes tends to speak to the viewer poignantly, their excess can lead to monotony.

The choreography offered a variety of geometrical designs and a number of repetitive movements, often mirroring each other. This order was suddenly broken in the scene from Act III where Spartacus weakens and the hero is defeated. While Spartacus did not manage to save humanity through the revolt he led, his strength and revolutionary ideology suggested hope for the future.

Was Yelizariev, in his previous use of geometrical order and then its rupture in Act III, sending out some other message? Was the return of this order in the final heart-breaking requiem a sign of desperation? Members of the audience at the Cairo Opera Ballet Company’s production of Spartacus were invited to ask themselves some interesting questions.

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