The legendary ‘Spartacus’

The Yury Grigorovich Dance Theater performs in Israel.

Spartacus (photo credit: TATIANA ZUBKOVA)
(photo credit: TATIANA ZUBKOVA)
In movies, teachers and mentors often tell their students that they want them to eat, sleep and breathe the thing they are trying to master. Choreographer Yury Grigorovich did just that, from his earliest memories, he ate, slept and breathed ballet. Born in 1927 to a ballet family, Grigorovich’s first steps were into a dance studio and he has scarcely left since.
Now, at the age of 92, Grigorovich has a kind of gut understanding of ballet – specifically, classical Russian ballet – that evades even the most devout dance historians. Next month, Grigorovich’s Spartacus will be performed in Israel by the 60 dancers of the Yury Grigorovich Dance Theater, marking a milestone opportunity for ballet fans to partake live of a great, time-tested opus.
“I was brought to the ballet by my mother, who studied at the Petersburg School of Ballet on Rossi Street,” he told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview. “It was natural. Her brother, Georgy Rosay, was a soloist at the Mariinsky Theater, and participated in Sergei Diaghilev’s performances. He died early in 1918, but he was well remembered at the theater and at the school.
“When I came to classes as a little boy, all the teachers looked at me knowingly. It was believed that I inherited a high jump from uncle Georgy and his role as a grotesque dancer. It happened indeed. In my artistic life, which lasted 17 years, before I became a choreographer, I repeated many roles of Georgy Rosay. Although, of course, in my time the repertoire was already changing, new names came to the front line, new authors and topics.
But the classics fortunately remained, and the old-timers passed it on to us youngsters. This helped me later in the choreographic work, when I directed classical performances and tried to preserve everything that the performers of the first editions of ballets by Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov and Mikhail Fokin remembered.”
Grigorovich received his professional training at the Leningrad Choreographic School and was snapped up by the Kirov Ballet immediately following his graduation. He became a soloist for the renowned company and continued to perform there until 1962, when he set out on his journey as a choreographer.
“I started to direct performances early,” he said, “literally after graduating from the ballet school in 1946. At first these were dances in operas.”
Grigorovich went from ballet in opera to children’s theater, creating a hit performance entitled The Little Stork. At that time, in post-war Russia, luxuries were scarce, and artists made do with what was around. Grigorovich reminisced that in order to bow on stage following the performance he had to borrow a jacket from a friend because he didn’t own one.
“What united us, the different generations of artists, were the modest, if not poor living conditions. But we did not notice this, everyone was caught up in the enthusiasm of the work.”
In the epic career that followed these first creations, Grigorovich etched out dozens of ballets. He did this with grace, courage and a fair dose of chutzpah. One highlight from his repertoire is a reimagined Swan Lake, which ends not in despair but in triumph for the characters.
His knack for decoding complex music and translating it into movement and his sense of narrative staging placed Grigorovich at the helm of Russian ballet. He served as the director of the Bolshoi Ballet for over 30 years, carving out what many perceive as the finest period of classical dance in history.
“Few people understand that this is horrendous work,” Grigorovich intoned. “You are responsible for people, creative people with their ambitions; for the safety of the repertoire and its expansion; for the international contacts of the Ballet.
There were difficulties, but work made up for them. We were happy we created together, that we were welcome, loved and adored around the world. Our dancers were called ‘Bolshoi stars’ and it was right. We understood and loved each other, even when we were apart. I could not work all the time with everyone, something would break down in the relationship, outlooks changed. But overall, the company was unsurpassed. This was my joy.”
The ballet Spartacus remains close to Grigorovich’s heart.
“As a young dancer, I participated in the first production of Spartacus in Leningrad in 1956. I then was the gladiator Retiarius, and they killed me already in the first act. Later, my own concept arose, and as the chief choreographer of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, I directed on my own version of this music in 1968. Since then, the performance has traveled the world several times and has had huge success everywhere, including Israel.”
Grigorovich explained that while many of his ballets were reworked over time, Spartacus has remained untouched since its premiere.
“Ballet compositions have their own destinies. Spartacus was born quickly and was never edited by me.”
Yury Grigorovich Dance Theater will perform Spartacus at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on December 13, 14 and 15. For more information, visit