Veni, vidi, vici: The Bulgarian Gladiators who Break Records and Lead Rhythmic Gymnastics Forward
Updated: Jul 14, 2021
This post is about Bulgaria’s group and their new mixed routine which they showcased for the first time at the World Cup in Sofia this past weekend. The five girls on the Bulgarian team - Simona Dyankova, Madlen Radukanova, Erika Zafirova, Stefani Kiryakova and Laura Traets, stunned the rhythmic gymnastics community with their performance, which was unmatched in difficulty and artistry by any other team. I was absolutely mesmerised to watch these young women compete and show their outstanding routines. The colossal effort that has gone into their 2021 programme, is apparent. The high calibre of these five gymnasts, their astounding compositions and seamless teamwork, surpass everything I have ever seen before. During the qualifying event on Friday last week, they scored the astronomical 44.150 for their 5 balls routine, which is the highest score ever achieved in the history of rhythmic gymnastics, and hence broke the record. They went on to win all the gold medals in the group competition: in the all-around event, in the five balls final, and in the mixed final.
In this post, I will specifically focus on Bulgaria’s new mixed routine in the group event – with 3 hoops and 2 pairs of clubs – as an example of their virtuosity and innovation. It is set to the wonderful and very memorable score from the ballet ‘Spartacus’, composed by Aram Khachaturian. The routine’s character and story have been developed around the idea of fighting a battle, inspired by the history of Spartacus.
Who was Spartacus?
Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who liberated and led an army of 70,000 slaves against the Roman Empire. Born in 111 BC in Thrace, near the Strymon river in the South-West of
present-day Bulgaria, Spartacus belonged to the Maedi tribe. He had military and strategy training – he was first a Thracian mercenary, and later served in the Roman army. Spartacus became enslaved together with his wife – a prophetess from the Maedi tribe - after having deserted the Roman legions. Due to his exceptional physical strength, Spartacus was selected to become a gladiator and was trained at the professional gladiator school near Capua, nowadays in Southern Italy. Gladiators were slaves and criminals, trained to battle to death to provide entertainment for the Roman citizens at the Arena.
Spartacus took part in a plot of 70 gladiators who broke free from the school, freed more slaves, and retired to Mount Vesuvius, where Spartacus was chosen to be one of the three leaders of the revolt, together with Crixus and Oenomaus. The latter two were later killed in battles, leaving Spartacus as the sole leader of the rebels. The army moved away from Vesuvius, freeing more slaves, and adding more people to their ranks, growing an army of 70,000, according to some historical sources. As the army grew in numbers and destroyed multiple Roman legions, the Roman Senate became restless and sent the only volunteer for the job - general Crassus, to destroy Spartacus’ army and put an end to the rebellion. In the final battle at the banks of the river Sele, Spartacus was killed, and his army was defeated by Crassus in the year 71 BC.
The Ballet ‘Spartacus’
The ballet ‘Spartacus’ is a wonderful piece of neoclassical ballet created in the 1950s and is among my personal favourites. The musical score of Aram Khachaturian is subliminally moving. The story follows the clash of two opposing armies – the army of the rebelling slaves led by Spartacus, and the Roman legions, led by general Crassus. This ballet has excellent storytelling, and features many plot elements that bring drama and suspense throughout – there is combat, rebellion, gladiator fight, seduction and lust, thirst for power and glory, oppression, deceit, but also longing for freedom, nobility, love and sacrifice. It is a mature and multi-layered piece of art which captivates the audience through a supreme exhibition of history interwoven with the individual human drama. I have featured several links in the resources section at the end of this article, where you can watch the full ballet.
The Making of an RG Masterpiece
The Bulgarian group retells the story of Spartacus. The choreography of their piece is excellent while still accommodating for a myriad of difficult elements. Their work is rich in collaborations, risky exchanges of the apparatuses, and flawless body work. What completes it to perfection is the development of the theme and character, i.e. the artistry of the routine. These five athletes become warriors for a noble cause and have the determination to fight for and achieve their dream.
There are a few moments in the routine that provide an interesting artistic link with the ballet ‘Spartacus’. The ring jump performed by Simona Dyankova (GIF here) is featured in the ballet on several occasions, e.g. by general Crassus (image here) and by Spartacus’s army (image here). The starting position of the RG routine features four of the gymnasts reaching for the sky, as if reaching for their dream, while their captain Simona Dyankova leads them on their ambitious quest. The theme of organized military action is very prominent in the ballet ‘Spartacus’ and we see the gesture of the raised arm in pursuit of a cause and following a leader, performed on multiple occasions throughout the ballet, for instance by the female character Aegina who follows the legions and helps them succeed (GIF here). The use of these few stylistic details from the ballet works very well for Bulgaria's mixed routine, and I am personally delighted to see this interaction between classical ballet and rhythmic gymnastics.
Onto the topic of leotards, they are a curious and novel choice and are naturally designed to resemble armour and give the gymnasts the look of soldiers. The use of tulle is very unusual for RG, as is the colour grey but they work excellently to bring the warrior characters to live. Sparkling Swarowski crystals are purposefully very sparsely used on the bodice because those warriors were not people of wealth and glamour, but simple people who were fighting for their freedom. Metallic strips provide shine instead of sparkle, and wonderfully complement the rest of the leotard, by outlining the armour suit. The shoulders are capped with lightweight flutter sleeves which create the boxy, square look of the armour, but also add a touch of femininity to the gladiator look. The darker tones of this leotard represent the military theme of the story, as well as the humble beginnings of the slaves in Spartacus’ ranks. There is a red scarf made of tulle which surrounds the neck, and falls down the back of each gymnast, not only providing a pop of colour, but also having a deeper meaning - being the colour of blood, red symbolises the rebels’ courage and sacrifice for a noble cause.
The innovation and high class demonstrated by the Bulgarian team in this routine is remarkable. It can be seen in the difficulty, choreography, character, and execution of the routine. With supreme determination, the Bulgarian group embodied the meaning of the Latin phrase: Veni, vidi, vici, which means ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’. Similar to the story they tell in their mixed routine, they were like warrior heroes at this weekend's World Cup competition.
Let me know in the comments below your opinions of Bulgaria’s mixed routine 2021. If you liked this article, press the heart button at the end so I know that you enjoyed reading it, and I can make more content like this. Make sure to like my page on Facebook, MelodyRG (click here), and follow the MelodyRG Instagram account (click here). This way you will be the first to know when I post new articles. Thank you for reading.
See you next time,
Full musical score by Aram Khachaturian
Ballet 'Spartacus' filmed at Palais Garnier in 2008, starring Carlos Acosta (in parts)
Film-ballet 'Spartacus' from 1975
Ballet 'Spartacus' in black-and-white from 1970
Photo of Ruben Muradyan as Spartacus