First presented by The Australian Ballet in 1978 with choreography by Laszlo Seregi, Spartacus with its stirring tale of the Thracian prisoner forced to become a gladiator, kill his best friend and instigate an uprising to rescue his wife from their Roman captors, then recaptured and crucified, made an International star of Stephen Heathcote and went on to become one of The Australian Ballet’s most memorable productions.
Charged with creating a new production of this work, as the centrepiece of The Australian Ballet’s 2018 season, Lucas Jervies and his designer, Jerome Kaplan, have chosen a completely different path, ignoring the familiar iconography of ancient Rome in favour of sparse, impressionistic imagery and a muted colour palette, to create an allegorical work referencing modern totalitarian regimes as a reminder that this kind of tyranny still exists.
In this world, gladiators dressed in sleek tailored trunks, with skin untouched by the sun, eschew weapons to fight bare-knuckled on pristine floors for the entertainment of pajama-clad Romans who lounge in lofty stands, or inhabit huge bathhouses where they cavort sensuously in steaming tubs.
The opening scene, the first of several spectacular set-pieces, has young men and women, dressed in white shorts and tunics reminiscent of Hitler youth, manipulating red flags to welcome the victorious Crassus with his prisoners, who include Spartacus and his wife Flavia. The couple are separated and sold at a slave auction, with Spartacus bought by a gladiator trainer, and Flavia claimed by Crassus for his household.
It’s no fault of the dancers that despite the gladiatorial battles being strikingly staged, with the sound of blows clearly audible above the music, the fights feel less affecting than might have been the case had traditional weaponry been employed.
However the gladiators attack each other with fearsome intent, posturing extravagantly and slapping the floor to add drama to the sparsely populated crowd scenes, which include an uprising in which the gladiators topple of giant statue of a clenched fist with pointed index finger, and the stunning final scene in which the recaptured, blood-drenched gladiators are displayed on stark white plinths.
The most memorable scene takes place in a huge steaming bathhouse where the highlight is a lovely dance for the female slaves, and in which Spartacus rescues Flavia while his compatriots drown the unfortunate occupants of the tubs.
This scene also highlight’s Jervies’ choreographic strength for staging group dances where he frequently uses the upper body and waving hands to create striking visual effects. His choreography for his soloists is less impressive often straining to meet the expectations created by Khachaturian’s stirring score.
Adam Bull displayed great presence as Crassus, and Lana Jones oozed glamour and decadence, as his wife, Tertulla, especially in her sexy second act solo. Replacing the previously announced Kevin Jackson at short notice, Jarryd Madden, proved a charmingly boyish Spartacus, convincingly tender in his love for Flavia, and pulling out all stops in his rage at Crassus at being forced to kill his best friend Hermes (Callum Linnane) in gladiatorial battle.
As his wife Flavia, Robyn Hendricks matched Madden’s performance every inch of the way and although their ecstatic dancing of their final pas de deux provided a heart-wrenching prelude for the stunning final scene, it was a pity that she was not provided with more inventive choreography with which to express her anguish than flailing around and repeatedly dropping to the floor in response to the loud, mournful pounding of Khachaturian’s majestic score.
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
Performance: Friday 9 November 2018 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 24 November 2018
For more information, visit: www.australianballet.com.au for details.
Image: Jarryd Madden and Callum Linanne star in The Australian Ballet’s Spartacus – photo by Daniel Boud
Review: Bill Stephens OAM