The Australian Ballet’s 2018 tent pole: Spartacus reinvented for the 21st century

In any ballet season there’s always a big show, a premiere, a hook that adds that extra bit of excitement to the year.

Next year, the Australian Ballet‚Äôs big show, described by the company‚Äôs artistic director, David McAllister as ‚Äėthe tent pole‚Äô, will be Lucas Jervies‚Äô interpretation of Spartacus, a ballet familiar to Australian audiences in the 1960s and ‚Äė70s when Russian companies, with titles like Stars of the Bolshoi Ballet and 40 Stars of the Russian Classical Ballet brought Soviet era ballets down under.

The story of the slave, gladiator and hero who led a slave uprising against the Roman republic resonated with the times. The first Spartacus ballets were staged in the 1950s, not that many decades from the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.

The legend of Spartacus still resonates at a time when we’re reading more and more about the poor and the persecuted, ethnic cleansing, human trafficking, refugees with nowhere to go and powerful oppressors who shout and threaten.

In the post-Stalin days in the USSR the most successful production of Spartacus was choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich in 1968.

In her book, Swans of the Kremlin, Ballet and Power in Soviet Union, the author and historian, Christina Ezrahi, wrote that the ballet was a response to the Kremlin’s need for more Soviet productions.

The new Spartacus was qualified as a Soviet ballet ‚Äúbecause of a Soviet composer and its revolutionary historical plot that could be given contemporary significance by drawing parallels between the oppression of slaves in ancient Rome and the oppression in contemporary – capitalist – countries‚ÄĚ.

Nevertheless, the artistry of the ballet outlasted any political motivations.

In the same year as the premiere of Grigorovich’s ballet, the choreographer, Laszlo Seregi created his own Spartacus for the Hungarian State Ballet.

Then, a decade later, Seregi’s ballet entered the Australian Ballet’s repertoire.

As you can see from the photos it was a blockbuster success not just because of the dynamic choreography and familiar score of Aram Khachaturian but for the beefcake factor.

Rows of muscular men wearing very little were a bonus when it premiered in Melbourne in October 1978, with Gary Norman as Spartacus and Marilyn Rowe as Flavia his wife.

The most famous Spartacus muscle man was Steven Heathcote whose photo in his Spartacus costume made him a poster boy when the Australian Ballet took Spartacus to the United States in 1990.

That year the ballet was also recorded live at the Arts Centre, Melbourne in March with Heathcote and Lisa Pavane in the leading roles.

The libretto for Seregi’s production was based on a 1951 novel about Spartacus by Howard Fast, a book that also inspired Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 movie starring Kirk Douglas.

Lucas Jervies’ challenge is to create a Spartacus ballet that is set in the past but also resonates with the present in what many see as a totalitarian age.

Jervies, who trained at NIDA as an actor and director, will work with a dramaturge, Imara Savage, the resident director for the Sydney Theatre Company.

His other collaborators are the French designer, Jerome Kaplan, (set and costumes), Ben Cisterne (lighting designer) and Nigel Poulton (fight director).

Jervies has already choreographed a pas de deux for Spartacus that was performed last year in Penrith as part of Ballet Under the Stars. It can be seen again in a gala in Adelaide on October 27 and 28.

There’s only one new ballet in the 2018 repertoire, a one act piece choreographed by Alice Topp as part of Verve, a triple bill that will be exclusive to Melbourne.

The other two works are Stephen Baynes’ Constant Variants, 2007 and Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow, 2016.

The year will open with a tribute to Graeme Murphy who joined the Australian Ballet as a dancer in 1968 and choreographed his first ballet for the company in 1971.

Murphy, as the tribute is titled, will include his 2009 ballet, Firebird and highlights of his repertoire for both the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Dance Company, where he was artistic director for 31 years.

Other full evening ballets are Robert Helpmann and Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow (1975), Maina Gielgud’s Giselle, (1986) Melbourne only, Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella,(2013), Sydney only and David McAllister’s Sleeping Beauty,(2015), Adelaide only.

Every ballet in the 2018 repertoire has been, or will be (Jervies and Topp) choreographed for the Australian Ballet.

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Robyn Hendricks and Jarryd Madden, Spartacus pas de deux, photo © Kate Longley

Hungarian National Ballet in Laszlo Seregi’s Spartacus, photo © Bela Mezey

The Australian Ballet’s Spartacus poster, 1978

Steven Heathcote in a photo shoot for Spartacus, 1990, photo © Earl Carter

Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson, The Firebird