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Spartacus ballet review (Sydney Opera House)

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Remade as a muscular, heroic underdog for our times, this new Spartacus is crisp and compelling storytelling. Despite Khachaturian’s glorious, ever-shifting melodies, Lucas Jervies’ choreography does veer to the repetitive and monosyllabic, but he’s a director well versed in the drama of theatre; and with dramaturg, fellow director Imara Savage, knows how to stage a good story.

But really, it’s hard to go wrong with this classic tale of a gladiator slave leading a doomed rebellion against the might of Rome. Think of Stanley Kubrick’s rousing film starring Kirk Douglas or Howard Fast’s 1951 popular novel, published just as Khachaturian in Moscow was composing his symphonic version, trying to win back the favour of his Soviet overlords.

Stalin died a year before it premiered in 1954 but it worked; the Soviets thought his Spartacus was really about Stalin’s struggle against the tyranny of imperial Russia, and blessed the poor composer with the Lenin Prize. For Khachaturian, says Jervies, Spartacus was more likely about the plight of Soviet artists grappling with the tyranny of Stalin!

As for versions of the ballet to his score, it was Laszlo Seregi’s later production for the Hungarian State Ballet which eventually came into The Australian Ballet’s repertoire in 1978. It’s always been a winner, notably with Stephen Heathcote and, then in 2002, with Robert Curran as the manly hero.

Kevin Jackson was due to play the role at this Sydney opening, as he had recently to great applause in Melbourne.  Instead, at short notice, Jarryd Madden stepped up with a Spartacus more boyish and tender than an adult, passionate leader of rebels.

Madden was at his best – as was the choreographer – in the pas de deux with his wife Flavia (a sublime Robyn Hendricks), both enslaved but overflowing with yearning for freedom and each other. The lifts and signature tableaux of the two, especially when repeated in their last mournful dance, is wrenchingly beautiful.

Indeed, Lucas Jervies created this one piece a couple of years ago – and on Henricks and Madden – as a kind of audition to make the full ballet. The Australian Ballet’s artistic director David McAllister saw it and gave the go-ahead.

The pas de deux nicely contrasts to another danced by the tyrannical Crassus and his equally evil Tertulla (the accomplished Adam Bull and Lana Jones). But it’s less successful, more a pastiche of classical mannerisms. You’d think their cruelty and fractured relationship would inspire more inventive choreography, especially when they find new lust surrounded by the bloodied bodies of re-captured slaves.

LEADScreen Shot 2018-09-19 at 1.54.16 pm
Kevin Jackson and Robyn Hendricks in Spartacus. Note that at the performance reviewed, Jarryd Madden was a late replacement for Jackson in the role of Spartacus.

An earlier scene back at the palace, with the conquering class luxuriating solo in rows of baths, randomly kicking up their legs, similarly lacks any erotic impact, any extremity of indulgence.

The real hero of this Spartacus is the French-born designer Jerome Kaplan. Stripping away Roman tat and iconography, his sleek set within grey and overpoweringly high walls transforms artfully from crowded stadium (with the gladiators thrust out from cavities in the walls) to the colonnades of Crassus’s palace to lonely landscape.

Kaplan’s pleated long tunics and loose pant suits in muted colours suggest both Roman and more contemporary affluence – just as Crassus’ seat of power, with its iconic huge hand on a plinth, would be at home today in North Korea.   Swarming with rebel slaves, it’s torn down just as Saddam Hussein’s statue was in Baghdad.

Another hero of Spartacus is fight director Nigel Poulton. A regular contributor to many incidental fights in Sydney theatres, Poulton’s work is here centre-stage, whether for the slaves fighting without weapons in the gladiatorial stadium, taking on the Romans or getting hot under the collar with each other.

The synthesis of highly realistic hand combat within Jervies’ balletic medium is spectacular. It segues artfully into the brawny slaves leaping in circles, fisting the earth in crouches and thrusting forward, or their standard assertion of limbs spread-eagled.

It’s exciting group dynamics but, choreographically, that’s about the limit for the blokes. Dance-wise, for example, poor Madden is left monosyllabic when he has to dance in agonised sorrow over the body of his best friend, after being compelled to slaughter him in the ring. Lots of muscular arms repeatedly wrapped around the head but little more.

There are other flat choreographic moments but, again, as a director, Jervies’ hand is commanding, all is forgiven by the theatrical power of the end.

The recaptured slaves carry plinths onto the grey toned empty stage as their bloodied torsos are picked out red by Benjamin Cisterne’s evocative lighting. Each are thrust onto the plinths in an horrific reminder of the 6,000 slaves who were crucified along the Appian Way back in 71BC after the real rebellion.

Flavia dances beneath them in what’s meant to be optimistic gestures that somehow freedoms will prevail. I wasn’t convinced by that.

At the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until November 24. Images by Jeff Busby

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