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The Australian Ballet is staging a new version of one of its greatest hits
The figure of Spartacus, the Thracian slave who led a failed rebellion against his Roman overlords in 71 BC, has captured the public imagination in countries all over the world, but most significantly in America and Russia. US author Howard Fast’s 1951 novel was written when he was in prison for refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. When Russian composer Aram Khachaturian penned his ballet score three years later, it was ostensibly to curry favour with the Soviet regime after the death of Stalin. It’s proof that one person’s Genesis myth is another’s Book of Revelation.
This interpretive fluidity in the material gives choreographers plenty of scope, and Lucas Jervies cuts his own path through the iconography that has built up around the man. His Spartacus (Kevin Jackson) is more a figure of resistance than rebellion; while there are classic revolutionary gestures in the piece – notably the downing of a massive statue of an iron fist that closes the first act – the overall impression is of a man who simply wants to escape tyranny and live quietly with his wife, Flavia (Robyn Hendricks). This Spartacus comes reluctantly to every battle, and is the first to offer mercy.
Mercy, or the complete lack of it, is a theme that Jervies exploits in interesting ways. Certainly Crassus (Ty King-Wall), the general who eventually crushes the slave revolt, has no use for it. Neither do any of his henchmen. Spartacus’s best friend Hermes (Jake Mangakahia) refuses it, to his peril. Even Flavia, when given the chance, tortures her oppressors mercilessly. Only Spartacus himself is willing to embody the deeds of mercy, and it is this alone that elevates him.
Jackson is a fine, supple dancer, and there’s a sense that the company have long had him in mind for this role, but the results aren’t entirely successful. He has bulked up his body so much – more than anything else, he recalls Tom Hardy’s Bane from The Dark Knight Rises – that it interferes with his extensions. His bunched shoulder muscles seem to throw off his usually glorious lines. He commits to the role completely, and there are moments of sheer genius, but his body shape is often a hindrance to his technique.
King-Wall stands in stark contrast: lithe and responsive, his body seems to ooze across the stage, serpentine and yet strangely seductive. As his treasured concubine Tertulla, Amy Harris is extraordinary; there’s a poise and a confidence in her dancing that made the curtain-call announcement of her elevation to principal seem inevitable. Hendricks is likewise magnificent, sharp but somehow luxurious, with a third act pas de deux with Jackson that threatened to bring the house down.
Threatened to, but didn’t. Jervies’s choreography is strangely divorced from the music – long melodic phrases seem poorly matched to the arrested, choppy movements in the dance – and every time he reaches for the ritualistic, it comes off as cheap and silly. The slaves indulge in lots of haka-like gestures, and the crotch-thrusting bacchanalia that opens the second act seems almost parodic. There is a heap of fine and transcendent choreography in here, but just not enough to fill an entire ballet.
The design is largely stripped back, and effective for the restraint. Jérôme Kaplan’s austere but flexible set manages to suggest both the ancient world and Stalinist Russia, and his costumes are curiously fetishistic – at one point, Spartacus is wearing a gold chainmail top that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a ’90s muscle Mary. Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting is effective if largely unimaginative. Nicolette Fraillon directs Orchestra Victoria expertly, managing to unite a sometimes unwieldy score.
Spartacus was a notable hit for the Australian Ballet back when Steven Heathcote danced the role, and the company no doubt hope to recreate that magic in some way. It’s true that the revolutionary spirit of the piece is as relevant as ever, but there’s also an unquestioning hyper-masculinity that suits the time far less. Jackson’s beefed-up body cuts against his usual grace, and this feeds into something that’s not quite right about this production. For a story with endless interpretative potential, and an explosive battle of wills at its heart, it remains a rather cold war.