An impassioned ovation greeted the exceptional, all-giving dancers of The Australian Ballet and musicians of Orchestra Victoria at the packed première of the company’s new production of Spartacus. The familiarity of the story of oppressed slaves and gladiators fighting the Roman Republic for freedom during the Third Servile War (73–71 BCE) – popularised by Howard Fast’s 1951 novel and Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 movie starring Kirk Douglas – guaranteed considerable excitement in the State Theatre. For many, there were vivid reminders of the company’s previous Spartacus, created by Lázló Seregi for the Hungarian State Ballet in 1968. That production came into The Australian Ballet’s repertoire in 1978, and the première starred Garry Norman as the gladiators’ leader, Spartacus, and Marilyn Rowe as his wife, the priestess Flavia.
Choreographed by Lucas Jervies, a former company member, this Spartacus is only the seventh created since Leonid Yakobson’s was made for the Kirov Theatre, St Petersburg, in 1956. The most famous is Yuri Grigoriev’s 1968 version for the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow. Perhaps, in the affluent 1980s, revolutionary ballets were unfashionable, but, as Jervies reminds us in a program note, the original score was created in the often lethal context of Stalin’s cultural-political purges and draconian Soviet censorship of artistic works. Spartacus suffered greatly, as did Shostakovich and Prokofiev’s earlier ballets, despite Aram Khachaturian’s winning both renewed fame and the 1959 Lenin Prize for Spartacus after being blacklisted for several years.
French-born designer Jérôme Kaplan places the new Spartacus on a grand, Italian fascist stage enclosed by a semi-circular grey wall, with a monumental staircase and a statue of a closed fist and pointing finger as the symbol of Roman power. The wall opens and closes to form a gladiator’s gymnasium, the Coliseum arena, and bare fields. Dropped-in elements form the slave market and the colonnaded salon of the powerful Consul Crassus’s palace. White plinths, dragged on by the captured Spartacus and his fellow blood-drenched rebels, represent the six thousand crucified along the Appian Way by Roman legions. Overall, the design is neutral, reflecting Jervies and Kaplan’s cool, postmodern aesthetic, mixing 1930s and 1960s fashion under Benjamin Cisterne’s still-evolving lighting.
Central to plot resolution, much more so at the second performance than at the première, was a third score that Khachaturian wrote in 1969–70, one never before performed in Australia; the company’s music director, Nicolette Fraillon, found it during early production research. Sumptuously scored, it gives the players opportunities to shine in all kinds of sonorities and rhythms, most evocatively in the soaring love duet telecast worldwide as the theme music of The Onedin Line series. The players also reveal the ironies of Khachaturian’s shifting moods and attitudes. So clever was he that many Russians believed that his Spartacus represented Stalin in the ballet.
Choreographically, the score demands a strong grip on the way Khachaturian turns a slow tango into a sombre waltz; how marches and folk themes give way to oriental percussion or jazz; or how the triumphal opening fanfare, which seems to praise the Republic or Stalin, is actually satirical. Jervies seems to avoid responding to such musical games; this stultifies innovation in his work. Even his staging of a palace party with steam baths and faux nudity feels unfinished, effete – it should be erotically charged.
Jervies shapes his ideas minimalistically, giving most dancers little room to act into the material. Here are two contrasting examples. After Spartacus is captured and forced to fight his best friend Hermes to the death (gut-wrenching performances by Kevin Jackson and Jake Mangakahia on the first night, Jarryd Madden and Callum Linnane at the second), he has three or four poses to express suffering, rage, and anguish. The result is vicariously painful, but repetitions dissipate the impact. In contrast, at the palace of Crassus (Ty King-Wall, Adam Bull), his wife, Tertulla (the gleaming Amy Harris on both nights), dances a smart, jazzy solo that dots the space with quicksilver glides, turns, and jumps, her flashing legs calling up fashion poses. The vulnerability of her position transcends such glamour, as Crassus cruises around and manhandles Flavia (Robyn Hendricks, Ako Kondo), now his bath servant. Another duet for Crassus and Tertulla is more like an Apache – a sly, often violent tango from a 1950s Parisian dive or cabaret – compellingly danced by the sinister Bull and Harris at the second performance.
Most disappointing are Flavia’s dances, all balletically pedestrian until Act Three, when the love duet reveals the tenderness of Spartacus – he cannot kill Crassus when the consul’s children run to Crassus, lying bashed on the palace floor – and delivers the ballet’s only moment of a palpable love. As for Spartacus, he seems trapped inside clichéd gestures and posturing, which become more burdensome than expressive, although both Kevin Jackson and Jarryd Madden at the first and second performances, respectively, invested their very souls in the work – Jackson almost destroyed, Madden wracked with tears. Heroic is the only word for their interpretations. Finally, the curtain comes down on Flavia staring at the bloodied men on their plinths, not knocked over by grief, but flailing about against loud, sonorous music, which intrinsically demands an earthy, expressionist transformation. Reimagining this coda is imperative. Ironically, the muscular gladiatorial episodes were meticulously developed under fight director, Nigel Fulton.
This Spartacus is a work in progress. To achieve something wholly new, and to critique the world’s rising persecutions, slavery, populism, and oligarchy, Jervies needs to eradicate the predictable classical flourishes from all the dances to liberate his creativity. Khachaturian wrote his score three times; Jervies has a good basic platform on which to reimagine and recharge his Spartacus.
Spartacus is presented by The Australian Ballet at the State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne until 29 September 2018, and at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, from 9 to 24 November 2018. Performances attended: September 18 and 19.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.