State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
September 18, 2018

The Australian Ballet’s new version of Spartacus is the company’s season centrepiece. The ballet is as big and as bold as they come. It’s visceral and political; allegorical and contemporary. And despite its story being thousands of years old, the ballet insists on its relevance – offering an incisive comment on the politics of power and the choices we make between complicity and resistance.

Kevin Jackson and artists of The Australian Ballet. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Spartacus tells the story of its eponymous hero who, after being captured as a prisoner of war by consul Crassus, is trained to become a gladiator in Ancient Rome. Horrified by the violence he is forced to endure, Spartacus is spurred to rebellion and incites his fellow captives to rise up. The rebels storm Crassus’ villa where Spartacus’ wife, Flavia, is enslaved. In a moment of mercy, Spartacus spares Crassus’ life, but this only triggers an epic battle between the Roman army and the rebel forces.

Choreographer Lucas Jervies has thought carefully about how to tell the ancient gladiator’s story in 2018. Rather than exclusively focusing on themes of passion, honour and vengeance – which are still very present – Jervies has used the story of Spartacus to explore the dynamics and consequences of power structures in political systems. Through a self-proclaimed ‘contemporary filter’, the choreographer has sought to present the legend as an allegory of resistance against all tyrannical regimes throughout history. It’s an ambitious goal that is admirably fulfilled.

By necessity, the universal and timeless framing of Spartacus’ story has produced a minimalist aesthetic in the ballet’s design. Classic Roman iconography is largely absent; replaced with stripped-back and carefully selected symbols of power and statehood. Here, Jérôme Kaplan’s Brutalist-inspired set is a stroke of genius. The ballet takes place in an arena setting, enclosed by towering half-cylindrical walls that not only represent a gladiatorial stadium, but also the State’s dwarfing and omnipresent power.

Kevin Jackson. Photograph © Jeff Busby

The work is laden with symbolism, most of which is cleverly integrated to advance the narrative while also referencing actual historical events. An imposing statue of Constantine’s hand, for example, is dramatically toppled by the rebels at the end of Act I, vividly evoking images of anti-Soviet protestors toppling statues of Lenin and Stalin, or the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq. While some of the imagery felt jarring – such as the waterboarding of Crassus and the appropriation of the Māori haka in a battle scene – overall, the work effectively declares its contemporary relevance and triggers ageless questions about oppression and resistance.

The disciplined aesthetic of the ballet’s design is paralleled in Jervies’ choreography. The movement is unadorned and powerful, striking bold lines and extreme positions that heighten the dancers’ athleticism. Crawling on haunches, reaching to the sky with arms and hands wide open, slapping forearms together in a vice-like grip. These gestural movements not only humanise the story but also allows for clear storytelling. An effective motif throughout the work is a salute to Crassus that Spartacus and the rebels soon appropriate for their own cause and identity. Special mention must also go to Nigel Poulton’s fight direction, which adds a level of realism and brutality to the barbarism on stage.

Robyn Hendricks and Kevin Jackson. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Principal Kevin Jackson gave a breathtakingly magnificent performance in the lead role on opening night. His rendering of Spartacus was athletic, raw and nuanced. The role had clearly been made for him and he owned every moment of it. His counterpart, principal Robyn Hendricks, was exquisite, offering an equally powerful and emotional characterisation of Flavia. The pas de deux at the beginning of the third act was truly sublime, filled with expansive passages of allegro and impressive lifts.

Aram Khachaturian’s epic score from 1954 accompanied the work. It is a music on a grand scale, canvassing everything from brass fanfares to Armenian-inspired folk music, driving, energetic rhythms and sweeping cinematic climaxes. Although peppered with dramatic moments, the variety is not particularly helpful in establishing a consistent narrative arc for the ballet, and it did not always sit well with the pared back vision of Jervies and Kaplan.

Regardless, Spartacus is a remarkable ballet. Jervies’ training and experience as a theatre director (as well as a dancer and choreographer) is obvious. His contemporary framing of an ancient story is deftly handled, and stunningly realised through Kaplan’s designs that are both recognisable and timelessly metaphorical. What results is an emotionally and visually powerful piece of theatre that comments, surprisingly loudly, on the eternal power struggle between State and subject.

Spartacus plays at Arts Centre Melbourne until September 29, and Sydney Opera House November 9 – 24


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