Australian Ballet: Spartacus

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Published: 20th September, 2018
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The world premiere of the Australian Ballet’s new production of Spartacus brought a full house to its feet.  Director and choreographer Lucas Jervies along with his creative team have conjured a beast of a ballet brimming with savage beauty and violent passion.  Dynamic characters intertwine in an intricate plot set amidst a magnificent, sleek set.  Spartacus is exhilarating, sexy and raw.  An engrossing ballet composed of rich hues, Spartacus takes the feminine features of classical ballet and ignites them with a dose of testosterone.  If Swan Lake is the quintessential classical ballet brimming with ethereal beauty, then Spartacus is its meaty, earthen brother.  Much of Spartacus’ allure is in its grounded strength, power and stamina.

Jervies is a former dancer with the Australian Ballet and has choreographed throughout the US, Europe and Australia.  He is a graduate of the National Institute of Dramatic Arts with a degree in directing, and Spartacus clearly illustrates his theatrical influences.  Jervies’ direction is sculptural with kinetic choreography and precisely outlined characters.  The Australian Ballet’s new production takes several liberties from the original Russian ballet, most notably set on the Bolshoi in 1968, and delves into greater character development, particularly for the female roles.   Kevin Jackson leads the cast with a charismatic Spartacus that inspires his rebels with an almost “cult of personality” persuasion.  Jackson’s strength as a dancer is most glorified in this role, featuring his muscle toned instrument harmonizing with intricate leaps and rhythmic steps.

He shares more intimate moments with the ever-fluid Robyn Hendricks dancing the role of Flavia, Spartacus’ wife.  Hendricks’ willowy frame perfectly complements Jackson’s brute force resonating in unexpected tenderness.  These two principal artists show great refinement and passion with all of their duets.  Hendricks’ arms are some of the most expressive in the company and Jervies’ choreography puts them to good use.  The Jackson and Hendricks partnership is further fortified with a knowing comfort that these two dancers share a committed bond inspired by the tragic journey of their characters.

Senior Artist Brett Chynoweth dancing the role of Caius and Soloist Natasha Kusen dancing Eustacia consistently deliver dynamic dancing and much appreciated shine to their roles.  Principal Artist Ty King-Wall and newly minted Principal Artist Amy Harris execute precise steps embodied in stern unfaltering characters. Harris’ Tertulla, wife of Crassus, explores a depth of character arising from being a protective mother and ambitious wife.  Harris clearly understands her character’s dominating will over her husband and her dancing reflects Tertulla’s cool, refined and controlled demeanor.

This production, with all its bare costumes and scantily clad bodies, idolises the shapes and contours of the human form.  Designer Jerome Kaplan is a standout with minimalist costumes, props and set which weave old and new designs into a unique almost futuristic signature.   Act 1 ignites the stage with a parade of the newly acquired slaves framed with lines of red flags reminiscent of a Soviet propaganda film.  The cool slate background cleverly metamorphoses into slave quarters and finally the gladiator arena.  Act 2 opens with a view of steaming Roman baths that brings a collective gasp from the audience. Then, at the end of the ballet, we hold our breath as Spartacus and his rebels, poised on boxes, await their death.

Musical Director Nicolette Fraillon conducts Orchestra Victoria flawlessly through the gorgeously epic music.  The most revered Armenian composer of the 20thcentury, Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus was his most popular ballet.  Sections of the score are featured in several movies from animated film Ice Age: The Melt Down to Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 2001: Space Odyssey.  The expansive music weaves symphonic chords with Armenian folk melodies, capturing the political overtones of struggle and inequality.

Fight Director Nigel Poulton successfully prepares the dancers for intense stage combat.  As a mother of young children, I think it is fair to say this production of Spartacus is not for the faint of heart. The action is extremely realistic, with violent deaths acted out viscerally with theatrical blood.

An extra sparkle of the night was Artistic Director David McAllister announcing Ms. Harris’ promotion to Principal Artist during the standing ovation at curtain call. It appears to have been completely unexpected on Ms. Harris’ part, as she was embraced on stage by her partner and young daughter.  What an uplifting way to end a dramatic and dynamic production!

Paris Wages reviewed  Spartacus by the Australian Ballet on Opening Night,  Tuesday  September 18, 2018.