The Emperor’s Hand: the symbol of Spartacus

Hands can speak in many ways. There’s the high five, the stop! and go no further, the hands that clasp the face in despair, the crossed fingers for good luck and the driver’s hand that says thanks or thanks for nothing.

The Australian Ballet’s new production of Spartacus has its own very large hand, one that depicts dictatorship.

It’s held high but can collapse to one side, depending on who is in charge, a dictator or the slaves.

When Spartacus’s set designer, Jerome Kaplan, and the choreographer, Lucas Jervies, went in search of a symbol there were options.

One was the heraldic eagle, the chosen emblem of emperors, Napoleon’s army and Nazi Germany.

Instead, they settled on a more abstract symbol, one that also reflects control and dictatorship. It’s based on a sculpture of the hand of Constantine the Great at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

The hand is one of the surviving pieces of a giant statue of Emperor Constantine who ruled between 306 and 337 AD.

Before they met in person, Kaplan and Jervies decided their Spartacus should not be too historical but instead, represent both the past and present. When Kaplan listened to the Spartacus score, composed by Aram Khachaturian in 1954, he could hear how the music connected with the military marches from Soviet era.

Photos of Soviet sportsmen and women carrying flags representing victory, and wearing white shorts and T-shirts, influenced Kaplan’s costumes for the new Spartacus, but the ballet, he says, is timeless.

“It could be in the Roman time, it could be about the 1950s, or the future”.

The link between them is the central theme, “the idea of a dictator in a bad world”, whether it’s the time of the slaves uprising against the Roman republic or right now, when men and women still work in conditions close to slavery.

Despite these connections, ancient Rome doesn’t dominate the new Spartacus.

As Kaplan explained, “I try to be on the edges of the past and the edges of now”.

But between the span of now-and-then were other influences for Kaplan’s designs, among them his memories of Satyricon, a surreal and erotic fantasy film set in the Roman Empire and directed by Fellini in the late 1960s.

This article is based on a piece I wrote for The Australian Ballet’s magazine, Balletomane.

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