When the Australian Ballet’s Spartacus toured America in 1990, it nearly brought New York to a standstill. Crowds in Times Square stopped to gawp at the giant poster of leather-clad dancer Steven Heathcote as the rebellious gladiator, while at ground level promoters were kept busy replacing posters stolen by overeager fans overnight. The tour was a triumph.
Fast forward to 2018 and principal dancer Kevin Jackson is slightly relieved he won’t be following in Heathcote’s exact footsteps as he prepares to take on the role in a new version of Spartacus created by former company dancer and NIDA-trained director Lucas Jervies.
“Every time someone thinks of Spartacus, it’s always that image. It really is iconic,” he says.
Composed in 1954 by the Russian-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian, the story is based on the historical figure of Spartacus, an enslaved gladiator who led a rebellion against the tyrannical Roman commander Crassus in the first century BC. Traditionally, it’s been a vehicle for a company’s male dancers to step out from behind the ballerinas and take a well-earned place on centre stage. But over the years, it’s become as much about the beefcake as the ballet itself, with critics lambasting the work for its campiness, its action movie score and its datedness. In Australia, while the 1990 Heathcote-led production was a resounding success, the company hasn’t presented a full-length production of Spartacus since 2002.
Jervies’ version is slated as a Spartacus for the politically woke #MeToo era. For starters, he’s got rid of the leather, enlisting French designer Jérôme Kaplan, who created the costumes for the company’s production of Cinderella last year, to create a softer, more fluid look.
More importantly, says Jackson, Spartacus circa 2018 is as much about brains as brawn: a man who was a leader in every sense, not just a muscle-bound action hero.
“This Spartacus is still raw and masculine, but he’s more of a legacy figure,” he says. “Obviously he is a natural born leader, but Lucas has tried to bring in a more sensitive side. He doesn’t necessarily want to be a leader, but he’s forced into the role. He’s conflicted, he worries he’s about to make a rebellion and do the same thing the Romans did to him.”
For Jackson, who was lauded for his sensitive portrayal of the dancer Nijinsky in the 2016 production of the same name, the chance to work with Jervies to dredge up the real Spartacus from history and present him anew was an “incredible experience,” he says.
“It’s an incredible character arc. Lucas has been careful not to make it all doom and gloom, there are moments of happiness and joy, even if it’s just seeing Flavia for a few minutes.”
Spartacus’ wife has typically played a very distant second fiddle, but drawing the character out and making her central to his motivation has been a key part of moving Spartacus into the 21st century, explains Jackson. “She really is his heart and soul,” he says.
For the battle scenes, Jackson worked with fight director Nigel Poulton, whose job it was to break down the dancers’ highly trained ballet instincts and make them look like fighters.
“We had to change our whole physical stance, Lucas didn’t want us to stand like dancers,” says Jackson. “We’ve spent our whole lives learning to stand up straight and extend our necks, only to be told to pretend we now have no neck and cover our faces.” Scenes from rehearsal show a ballet studio more akin to a boxing ring: necks are wrenched, faces punched and chests kicked as dancers go head to head in mock battle, and Jackson says the intense physicality of the choreography initially came as quite a shock to some dancers.
“In the first few scenes, people were covering their eyes, they didn’t want to see,” he says.
It’s a challenge he’s relished. “I love that I’ve never been in a fight, yet I can come here and tap into that beast,” he says. “It’s what we crave as dancers, that challenge, and Spartacus is an incredible avenue to throw everything I’ve learnt about acting and dance all together.”
Spartacus is at the Sydney Opera House from November 9-24.
Looking for more on-stage highlights? Check out the best shows in Sydney this month.