by Jordan Beth Vincent

For longtime patrons of the Australian Ballet, there has only ever been one Spartacus. Back in 1990, principal artist Steven Heathcote’s performance in the ballet was the height of drama and masculinity — his image (powerfully muscular and wearing a leather loincloth and harness) used to promote the company’s tour to New York. Though officially retired, Heathcote continues to appear regularly in character roles with the Australian Ballet and is also the company’s ballet master and regional touring associate. Even though the Spartacus of Heathcote’s era (choreographed by László Seregi and first performed by the Australian Ballet in 1978) has not been seen since 2002, it is still talked about.

The premiere of a new Spartacus, therefore, has sparked a great deal of comparison between Heathcote and the new lead, Kevin Jackson. Jackson began with the company in 2003, was promoted to principal artist in 2010 and has consistently provided excellent performances in a range of different works — in the title role in John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, for example.

Like Heathcote in 1990, Jackson is at the height of his career artistically and physically. In both cases, the company has understood the importance of the image of their leading man in Spartacus, and it is hard to go far in Melbourne without seeing Jackson on the side of a bus or building captured in a deep lunge on demi-pointe, head tipped back and fists clenched.

This Spartacus was choreographed by Australian Lucas Jervies. Jervies, who danced with the Australian Ballet, is not entirely untested as a choreographer (credits include productions for Sydney-based companies Belvoir St Theatre and Griffin Theatre Company as well as for Louisville Ballet in the U.S.) but he has been given an extremely large platform with this production, which is as epic as the story itself.

We begin in Thrace, where Spartacus is in a line of slaves being sold at auction under the curious gaze of Crassus and his fellow residents at the villa. Spartacus is taken from his wife, Flavia (Robyn Hendricks), and sent to train as a gladiator. In the ring, he is forced to kill his best friend (Jake Mangakahia) — a moment of horror that sparks a revolution. Eventually, Spartacus and his fellow gladiator-slaves are captured and crucified. Flavia is left to mourn and to share the story of her husband.

This is a great deal of narrative to fit into 90 minutes. Aram Khachaturian’s score was cut down by nearly half for this production, which results in a very condensed ballet. This may be one reason why much of the nuance in the supporting characters is lost; however, Jervies works to draw out the complexities in our hero. Even Flavia, Spartacus’ love, exists mostly to give Spartacus the motivation to fight, to rebel and to show mercy.

Another reason for unevenness in character development may be a choreographic one. Jervies uses key gestures to differentiate groups of characters, as when, in the first act, the dancers portraying Crassus’ cronies repeatedly raise an index finger. This same gesture is reinterpreted by Spartacus and the other slaves when they raise a hand over their head with the index finger extended, and then knock their own hand down to the hip with the other arm. What never quite happens, however, is a real exploration, expansion and development of the gestures.

As well, it is far more interesting to be a male dancer in the world of Spartacus, with a number of missed opportunities to develop the female characters.

The material for the slave women, which is often performed in unison and with an uplifted ballet vocabulary, does not feel like it belongs in this production but rather is there to fill time. Whereas Jervies attempts to draw out the struggles and frustration for the gladiator-slaves through movement that is driven by character and narrative, the material for the women misses an opportunity to elucidate their own challenges as slave-servants in the misogynistic and patriarchal world of Crassus and his cronies. 

It is clear that the battles are where Jervies has applied his serious efforts. Working with fight director Nigel Poulton, Jervies’ fight scenes eschew weapons for wrestling and fisticuffs. Often, it is the moments of stillness where interesting shapes are created between the bodies of two dancers and that give a sense of the power dynamics.

Jackson and the rest of the male dancers have trained for this, and it is visible in the confidence with which they undertake what is fundamentally violent partnering work. The dancers even use sound effects — grunts and the sound of a fist making contact with another body — to highlight the harshness of this world. This makes for an interesting contrast in the movement Jervies has crafted for the love duets, which are romantic and sweeping, but also quite traditional in vocabulary and structure. Although the Australian Ballet has referenced the #metoo movement in their publicity as a frame for this ballet, it is very much a work by — and for — dancing men.

Jervies has drawn together a strong creative team. The first image of the ballet — during which Jerome Kaplan’s exquisite set is revealed — is striking. Beyond a tableau of toga-wearing and gold-adorned patricians rises an enormous statue of a human fist, with the index finger raised to the sky, the image that inspired Jervies’ gestural vocabulary. When Spartacus and the gladiators revolt, they pull this statue down so that the finger points directly at the audience, as though challenging us for our complicity.

There is a key theatrical moment like this in every act. In the second act, Jervies has created a debauched bathtub dance, where men and women frolic (alone and together) in enormous steaming bathtubs. In the final act, Spartacus and his men are crucified. From atop individual grey pillars, they stand, blood dripping down their bodies to the floor. Here, Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting design acts as a kind of wash over the bodies onstage.

As it was for Heathcote all those years ago, Spartacus is already an important vehicle for Jackson. He is excellently cast, as is Hendricks as Flavia and Amy Harris as Tertulla. It will be interesting to see how this production matures over time, as well as how Spartacus’ narrative will resonate with a contemporary Australian audience.

DI WINTER 2018

Robyn Hendricks and Kevin Jackson in Australian Ballet’s Spartacus
Photo: Jeff Busby