Spartacus: The good, the evil and the wall between

Lucas Jervies, the choreographer of the Australian Ballet’s new production of Spartacus wanted to create a work that relates to the world today, and not just the time of the Roman Empire circa 71 BC.

In that he succeeded.

A moment in Act 111, when a row of the Roman military holding shields approaches the rebellious slaves, led by Spartacus, was strangely familiar to a photograph recently published in the press.

It showed a cluster of Central American migrants approaching a line of United States military with each man in the line holding a shield.

In the space between the migrants and the military, a lone dog crouched on the road and looked back to the caravan of people. Had the dog been travelling with the migrants? There was no way to know.

I can’t get that image out of my mind.

It sums up the age of Trump, the Berlin Wall, the migrant camps and the gap between dictators and the repressed.

Jervies’ Spartacus is political. Every dance depiction of Spartacus is political. So too were Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table, a 1930s dance work expressing the futility of war and Akram Khan’s Giselle, choreographed in 2016.

Khan turned the peasants of the traditional ballet into migrants who were blocked by a high wall.

The good and the evil represent a duet we know so well in classical ballets, but how to depict them in contemporary ballet today?

The Australian Ballet’s new Spartacus is a mixture of wrestling, contemporary dance and ballet with Act I dominated by realistic fights directed by Nigel Poulton, Act II a decadent show taking place in bath tubs and eventually a gladiatorial attack that ended with lifeless legs dangling over the edge of the tubs.

Act 111 comes to an end with another image that stays in the mind – a line of gladiators, their torsos covered in red, representing blood, standing on rectangular boxes, a reference to the way slaves were crucified along the Appian Way.

The Bolshoi Ballet’s calling card, Yuri Grigorovich’s 1968 production of Spartacus, with its muscle men gladiators, swords, helmets, capes and acrobatic pas de deux lifts, has stood the test of time so I wonder if there is, in fact, a need to reinvent the ballet.

There is, though, a case to be made to relate the brutality of the past to the bullying and bastardy of today’s dictators.

Jérôme Kaplan, the designer of the new Australian Ballet’s Spartacus, made that clear with a powerful symbol, a giant hand, based on the remaining elements from a sculpture of the Roman emperor, Constantine.

The symbolism continues when the sculpted hand falls forward, from an upward direction to a position that points straight at the audience.

Kaplan’s grey and white minimalist sets suggest the Brutalist architecture of the Soviet Union.

There were more references to the Soviet Union in the first scene in Act 1 when men and women paraded wearing 1950s style white shorts and red flags.

Kaplan kept the costumes simple, avoiding the fancy dress clichés of the ancient Roman toga and cloaks.

He dressed the gladiators in black, beige and green high-rise briefs that resembled those worn in the ballets of the choreographer, Jiri Kylian.

There’s one Spartacus costume that seems to have no relationship to the past or present.

It’s a black criss-crossed top and a skirt, separated by a bare midriff, and worn by the character of Tertulla in an Act 11 pas de deux with the villain of the story – Crassus, a Roman consul and general who kept numerous slaves.

Both the costume and choreography in Tertulla’s solo, performed by Lana Jones on opening night, has aspects of adagio acrobatic dance from the 1930s.

Jones made the most of the virtuosic solo despite the speedy showbiz choreography.

The fights in Act 1 were a highlight of Spartacus, with powerful performances by Marcus Morelli, Callum Linanne and Andrew Killian.

The most beautiful moments were the pas de deux of Jarryd Madden as Spartacus and Robyn Hendricks as Flavia dancing to the yearning adagio theme in Khachaturian’s Spartacus score, made famous in the BBC television series, The Onedin Line.

Incidentally, the Australian Ballet’s music director and chief conductor, Nicolette Fraillon, gives an interesting and detailed description of the adagio in the theatre program.

The hero of the night was Madden who stepped into the leading role on opening night after Kevin Jackson became injured – a great pity for Jackson who had put his body, heart and soul into the role of Spartacus in the Melbourne season.

Madden’s performance on opening night in Sydney was outstanding in both his acting and dancing. As the curtain was about to fall, Madden was very much in the moment. From where I was sitting it looked as though tears were starting to fall, perhaps in sadness or perhaps because of the relief that everything went so well.

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Callum Linanne and Jarryd Madden, Spartacus, photo © Daniel Boud

Spartacus, artists of the Australian Ballet, photo © Daniel Boud

Robyn Hendricks and Jarryd Madden, Spartacus, photo © Daniel Boud

Spartacus, artists of the Australian Ballet, photo © Daniel Boud

Spartacus, Act I, set JĂ©rĂ´me Kaplan Kaplan