Nothing can detract from or diminish the splendid impression left by the Australian Ballet in its first several evenings at the Kennedy Center Opera House earlier this week, when it presented three splendid performances of "Giselle" in a wholly admirable production by the troupe's artistic director, Maina Gielgud.
Nothing, on the other hand -- including the enormous likability of these dancers and the surplus of good will they've evoked in us -- can dispel the sense of mind-numbing banality that follows in the wake of the company's production of "Spartacus," which was given the first of four weekend performances last night. The ballet -- choreographed by Laszlo Seregi, artistic director of the Hungarian State Ballet to the music of Aram Khachaturian -- is a mere 2 1/2 hours in duration, not all that long by story ballet standards. But a spectator's imagination assesses time not by the clock but by what fills it, and by this measure the evening seemed epochal in extent.
There's no accounting for taste, it's been said, and it's a certainty that there's a public for this "Spartacus," for otherwise the Australians wouldn't have retained the work in repertory for a dozen years and brought Seregi back again this season to redo the production. Perhaps my own aversion to it is a sign that I'm a prisoner of an attitude toward ballet largely promulgated in this country by Lincoln Kirstein and the late George Balanchine, who insisted that the worth of ballet is derived from the interest and depth of its choreography.
I am, however, far from immune to the pleasures of lowbrow diversion, and if I tell you I'm a fan of the "Benny Hill Show," and that "Blazing Saddles" puts me in stitches, you may grant me some qualification in this regard. For me, perhaps the real trouble with Seregi's "Spartacus" is not that it's bombastic and bad, but that it's not bad or bombastic enough. The more familiar ballet version of the story of the rebellious Roman slave, by Yuri Grigorovich for the Bolshoi, was not just awful, but monumentally awful, with a flair for crudity that matched that of the colossally trashy score.
The Seregi version, by contrast, is merely a routine clinker. It's clear the Hungarian is no match for Grigorovich as a schlockmeister, nor does he, as a craftsman, have anything like the latter's talent for prodigious sensationalism, though this may be partly the inevitable effect of the Bolshoi's huge scale of operation.
Neither the Seregi nor the Grigorovich version, which both first saw the light in 1968, was the first realization of the score. Leonid Jacobson and Igor Moiseyev created three earlier versions for Leningrad and Moscow that all fell by the wayside. If the Grigorovich and the Seregi are the "successes," in the sense of survival and popularity, one dreads to conjecture what these previous failures must have been like.
Seregi's earliest dance experiences were with folk dance and acrobatics, and he afterward worked a lot in theater, opera and TV before mounting his first major ballet, which was "Spartacus." One can see the hand of the seasoned showman in the result, as well as a shrewd deployment of folk and acrobatic elements, in a context that easily validates their use. But there's scarcely a thimbleful of originality or substance in either the choreographic treatment or the dramaturgy of "Spartacus." The good guys are all noble, virtuous and long-suffering; the bad guys are unmitigated monsters. The dancing is almost entirely a patchwork of recycled cliches. Choreographically, there's no discernible difference between the material given to the hero, Spartacus, and the villain, the Roman commander Crassus -- their solos are all but interchangeable. The ensemble dances -- for slaves, gladiators and soldiers, mostly -- provide ample outlet for the machismo histrionics of the troupe's men, but it comes in such geometrically symmetrical and hackneyed shapes the effect is almost prissy. Even the orgy scene is so cut and dried it has the erotic charge of a temperance meeting.
Under such circumstances, what can one say for the dancers except they gave it their best shot. Steven Heathcote, who'd shown himself to be a formidable and versatile dancer earlier in the run, was reasonably functional as Spartacus, though he lacks the messianic hyperbole, a` la Charlton Heston, the role craves. As his wife, Flavia, a part so synthetic as to be unredeemable, Lisa Pavane at least danced handsomely. Greg Horsman was entirely too mild a Crassus, despite the vigor and occasional brilliance of his dancing; Mark Brinkley, in a subsidiary role as the sadistic trainer of the gladiators, far outdistanced him in malevolence. But the ballet itself makes Crassus unbelievable -- at one point he has an entirely unmotivated attack of conscience, and in the midst of the orgy scene, he's given a benign waltz to dance. The other roles are virtual ciphers. The work's two "exotic" dance numbers -- bravely negotiated last night by Miranda Coney and Ulrike Lytton -- cancel each other out. The scenery, by Gabor Forray, and the costumes, by Tivadar Mark, do nothing to relieve the kitsch.
The Australian Ballet awakened hopes for the company's speedy return, to show us more of its multifaceted repertory and splendid dancers. If we're lucky, though, this and all other troupes will spare us further doses of "Spartacus," or at least those that aren't intentional comedies.