#Throwback Thursday: Spartacus

This week's #ThrowbackThursday features Soviet-era three-act ballet Spartacus.

Composed by Armenian composer Aram Khachaturyan for premiere in the Soviet Union, Spartacus is based on the real-life historical figure Spartacus, a Thracian slave who led a slave revolt against the Romans in the late Republican period, and who was eventually defeated by the Roman Consul Crassus. However, Khachaturyan took a great deal of liberty with the storyline.

Act I begins with Crassus' return to Rome in a great triumphal procession after his latest victory. Among his prisoners are the Thracian king Spartacus and his wife Phrygia. Spartacus laments his capture and bids a bitter farewell to his wife, as the men and women are separated so that they may be sold separately. Phrygia, overcome by grief, is led away to Crassus' palace, where she will become the newest slave in his harem. Crassus is holding a party that quickly becomes an orgy. His guests make fun of the new slave-girl Phrygia, while another of the harem-girls, Aegina, draws Crassus into the frenzied state of the Bacchanalia. Drunk, Crassus demands entertainment, and two gladiators are brought out to fight to the death. With their closed helmets, they cannot see the other's face until the victor has been declared. Having killed his opponent, the victor removes his helmet to reveal that he is Spartacus, while the man he has been forced to kill was a close friend. Horrified by this deed, Spartacus resolves to win back his freedom. He and the other gladiators break out of their barracks.

In Act II the escapees find themselves on the Appian Way, one of the main roads in Rome. They are met by a group of shepherds, who agree to follow Spartacus as their leader. However Spartacus is distracted by thoughts of Phrygia and resolves to rescue her as soon as possible. His search leads him to Crassus' villa, where the lovers are reunited; however, a procession of patricians led by Aegina forces them into hiding. Aegina plans on seducing Crassus and through this gaining admittance to the world of the Roman nobility. As Crassus arrives and the group begin a feast to celebrate Crassus' victory, Spartacus and Phrygia sneak away. Spartacus and his men then return and surround the villa, forcing the guests, even Crassus and Aegina, to flee. Flushed with victory, Spartacus starts to believe his uprising can actually succeed. Meanwhile, his men have captured Crassus and want to kill him, but Spartacus challenges Crassus to single combat instead. Crassus loses and accepts that he will die, but a contemptuous Spartacus lets him go. Crassus' dishonour is punishment enough.

In Act III, a tormented Crassus seeks comfort from Aegina, who tells him he must seek his revenge and kill the rebels. Having incited him to war, she sees him off to battle accompanied by his legions. Since the downfall of Crassus would be her downfall as well, she too has become Spartacus' enemy. She devises a plan to split the rebels' camp. Meanwhile, Spartacus is given the news of Crassus' approach with a large army. He prepares to give battle, but some of his men desert. Aegina follows the deserters, luring them in with wine and dancing before handing them over to Crassus, so that they may not change their minds and return to Spartacus. Consumed by desire for revenge, Crassus has his legions surround Spartacus' men. Spartacus fights to the end but is eventually crucified on the Roman spears. When the Romans leave, Phrygia comes out of hiding to mourn her husband, praying that his name might never be forgotten.

Khachaturyan wrote the music for Spartacus in 1954, and was awarded the Lenin Prize for the composition the same year. The libretto, written by Yuri Grigorovich, was derived from the novel Spartacus by Raffaello Giovagnolli. The ballet first premiered at the Kirov in 1956 with choreography by Leonid Yakobson. However, since Yakobson abandoned the conventional pointework expected of a ballet, the work had little success. It premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1958 with choreography by Igor Moiseyev, but it was the 1968 version choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich which finally made its mark. The ballet subsequently experienced great success and is still a part of the repertoire of the Bolshoi Ballet and other companies in the former Soviet Union.

Here's Nina Kaptsova and Ivan Vasiliev of the Bolshoi Ballet (I believe as Phrygia and Spartacus):

Here's Svetlana Zakharova and Vladislav Lantratov of the Bolshoi Ballet as Aegina and Crassus:

And here's the full ballet, courtesy of the the Bolshoi, and starring Carlos Acosta and Nina Kaptsova as Spartacus and Phrygia:

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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