It’s unusual to spend an evening at the ballet and think of Trump, Kim Jong-un, the #metoo movement, modern slavery, and…the rippling torso of actor Chris Hemsworth.
But The Australian Ballet’s shiny new Spartacus, choreographed by Lucas Jervies, and set to a dramatic score by Aram Khachaturian, draws on the well-told story of the heroic gladiator from ancient Rome, but makes it completely relevant.
Jervies captures an all-too-familiar world of state power, fear, violence towards women, guerrilla rebellions, repression of social groups, and complex intimate relationships.
Despite the deep symbolism, it’s a simple narrative. Spartacus and his wife Flavius (Robyn Hendricks) are captured by ruler Crassus (Ty King-Wall) and abused as slaves. Spartacus must fight for Crassus’s entertainment, and is forced to kill his best friend in the ring, or die.
Overcome by grief, he urges a rebellion. He and his fellow slaves kill their captors, free Flavia, and escape. They spare Crassus from death in front of his children.
But of course, there is brutal retribution.
It’s depicted by spectacularly fit dancers, led by Kevin Jackson as Spartacus, who must have had Hemsworth’s Thor on his locker room door for inspiration. Jackson epitomises Spartacus – from his hulking physique to his pain and passion. As Flavia, Hendricks embodies fear, hope, love and fury, all the while performing every step with immense precision and grace.
King-Wall is a confident Crassus, yet it is Amy Harris as his Lady Macbeth-like wife Tertulla who expresses the toxicity of power through her languid moves and sheer glee at the capture of slaves. In fact, it was a life-changing night for Harris, as AB artistic director David McAllister stepped on stage to announce her well-deserved promotion to Principal Artist.
Core to the choreography is fighting, and lots of it. Usually ballet aggression is more ‘theatrical’, but director Nigel Poulton embraces Fight Club style – guttural, confronting, and with fists instead of swords. Whilst excellent to watch for a short while – interest soon wears thin.
The set and costumes by Jérôme Kaplan and lighting by Benjamin Cisterne are key to bringing the narrative into the present. The final crucifixion scene is alarming in its boldness – with Spartacus in a stark spotlight as he endures a slow death, brightly lit blood pouring down his battered body.
Over the years, the company has edged forward in the style, tone and subject matter of its productions at a somewhat slower pace than other arts. This could be due to tradition of ballet as ‘escapism’, or that audiences pay for the classics. However, with Alice Topps’ recent production Aurum, and now with Jervies’ Spartacus, it has taken a much bolder leap into owning the now, and taking the conversation forward. Like the enduring story of Spartacus, long may this continue.
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