Dance to the death

Contemporary resonances abound in the Australian Ballet’s take on Khachaturian’s Spartacus.


AB principals Kevin Jackson, as Spartacus, and Ty King-Wall. Picture: Justin Ridler
AB principals Kevin Jackson, as Spartacus, and Ty King-Wall. Picture: Justin Ridler

“I am setting to work with a feeling of enormous creative excitement,” ­Russian composer Aram Khachaturian wrote on the first page of the score of the ballet Spartacus on July 9, 1950.

Fired up by his recent trip to Italy to visit the Roman ruins, Khachaturian continued work across a series of summers, bringing to musical life a tale based on an episode from ancient ­history: the Third Servile War and the eruption of a slave revolt led by the Thracian warrior and gladiator Spartacus against the villainous Roman commander Marcus Licinius Crassus in the first century BC.

He finished it 3½ years later on February 22, 1954 — and was pleased with his creation.

Read Next

  • Can you be racist about white people? The appointment of Sarah Jeong is forcing a once-ludicrous question to be taken seriously.

“I thought of Spartacus,” Khachaturian would later say, “as a monumental fresco ­describing the mighty avalanche of the antique rebellion of slaves on behalf of human rights.” But to him it was not just a hoary old story from the past. “When I composed the score of the ballet … I never ceased to feel the spiritual affinity of Spartacus to our own time.”

A prolific composer, Khachaturian perhaps keenly felt the struggles of his oppressed slave. Along with Shostakovich and Prokofiev, he had suffered the wrath of Soviet musical tsars over “anti-democratic tendencies” in his music, and was humiliatingly forced to apologise.

But then, in 1954, his Spartacus was finished and his fortunes swung upwards when his “monumental fresco” was given the stamp of government approval with the awarding of the Lenin Prize the same year.

The ballet had a slow burn to fame. It first made its stage debut at the Kirov at the Leningrad Theatre of Opera and Ballet (now the Mariinsky Theatre) on December 27, 1956, with choreography by Leonid Yakobson. The respon­se was lukewarm, as it was for a second version, in 1958 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow­. Then, 10 years later, Yuri Grigorovich staged the third — and most famous — prod­uction of Spartacus at the Bolshoi Theatre, re-engineering Khachaturian’s score so it sounded fresh and full-blooded, and featuring an explosive cast of dancers led by Vladimir Vasiliev as Spartacus and Maris Liepa as Crassus.

The production blazed trails. The ­famous Sovie­t ballerina Galina Ulanova wrote: “If the sense of the new Spartacus should be expressed in one word, then I choose the word ‘modernity’.”

• • •

It’s 2002. Lucas Jervies is standing nervously in the wings, about to deliver his swan song as a dancer. The Australian Ballet is performing Spartacus — the Laszlo Seregi version for the Hungarian State Ballet that the AB debuted back in October 1978 at the Palais Theatre in Melbourne, featuring Gary Norman and Marily­n Rowe in the lead roles. Jervies is an extra soldier. Looking back, he chuckles. “I’m marching and standing and saluting, and I think the character of Spartacus dies on my back.” Watching from the wings, he remembers thinking one thing: “I’d love to give this a go one day. And here we are.”

Jervies, who would go on to train as an actor and director at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, this month opens his new take on this ancient tale, with sets and costumes from Jerome Kaplan and a new libretto.

He knows he has his work cut out for him; a bad Spartacus can be a nightmare. Critics have long been ambivalent about the work; for many, it is little more than a campy, lumbering old beast rife with blunt pageantry, comic-book emotional signalling — horror, piety, heroism, grief — and, as The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella tartly put it, “all of it is propelled by Aram Khacha­turian’s movie-score-ish music. Drum, drum: Kill that guy! Violin, violin: Wrap that girl around your neck!”

Speaking on the phone before heading to “gladiator boot camp” — the AB’s Melbourne rehearsal space, where the new ballet is being built — Jervies utters a sigh that turns into a chuckle. Oh yes, it’s hardly the most subtle of ballets, he acknowledges. But he’s relishing the challenge of prising nuance and layers out of its creaky old frame.

Can it be updated for modern audiences? He believes so. There is a powerfully relevant story buried under the swords and shields and prancing Roman soldiers: a story of class and power and enslavement.

Australia's ballet dancers learn to fight like Romans
Video Player is loading.
Loaded: 0%
Progress: 0%
Stream TypeLIVE
Loaded: 0%
Progress: 0%
Stream TypeLIVE

    Australia's ballet dancers learn to fight like Romans2:44

    Marcus Morelli and Jake Mangakahia from the Australian Ballet describe how they've learned fight choreography for their roles in an upcoming production of Spartacus.

    His goal? To not just update the obvious anachron­isms — the 2002 version had a white dancer in blackface playing an African character (“slightly problematic now”, he says dryly) — but to reboot it to take on contemporary resonanc­es. Art cannot exist in a bubble. It has to reflect the times.

    For Jervies, this means there is a moral as well as creative imperative to address the pressing issues of the day, from modern-day slavery and ethnic cleansing to the dramatic changes in sexual politics and the rise of totalitarianism.

    After all, writing Spartacus was a political act for Khachaturian, he says. In a sense, the compos­er was hiding in plain sight, seeding his triumphal score with a subversive message.

    Although the ballet was seen as the perfect propaganda work for Soviet cultural tsars on the hunt for more patriotic ballets — to them, Khachaturian’s “antique rebellion of slaves” was the perfect allegory of the proletariat struggling against their bourgeois overlords — ­Khachaturian, witness to the persecution of artist­s by Soviet authorities, had a different interpre­tation. He made sure there were no “formalistic deviations” in his score, nothing too rarefied. But for all the populist bombast, it is a paean to human rights and the oppressed artist.

    • • •

    Jervies began work on the libretto with dramaturge Imara Savage, “a fantastic theatre animal” and resident director at the Sydney Theatre Company, but they decided to discard what they had created after six months: “It was too much of a historical piece,” he says.

    They went back to work, looking for more contemporary keys. The result is a new Sparta­cus, still set in ancient Rome but with echoes of totalitarian governments across time: North Korea, Joseph Stalin, the Third Reich, even the Trump administration conjured up through dramatic symbols.

    For the character of Spartacus himself, ­Jervies wanted a warrior far away from those beefcake, campy depictions. This is a man grounded in his time, and across time, he says; the loving father figure, the patriarch, the leader, the reluctant warrior who fights, bloodily, only to protect those he loves, a man in touch with his flawed humanity.

    As an artmaker, he has a clear moral responsibility to look at male violence through the prism of the #MeToo movement, Jervies says. Spartacus lashes out only as a last resort; at heart, he is more a spiritual animal.

    Kirk Douglas as Spartacus in the 1960 film.
    Kirk Douglas as Spartacus in the 1960 film.

    Jervies cites a scene in the Howard Fast novel on which Stanley Kubrick based his blockbuster 1960 film starring Kirk Douglas: Spartacus is in the mines, and “in these pitch-black nights, people were shitting and dying around him and he sat there with his legs crossed almost like a Buddha figure, eyes closed and just breathing and meditating, and people were leaning on him and calling him father”.

    Love, not toxic masculinity, is key; Spartacus, at its heart, is a love story for the ages. Jervies takes his cue from sources as diverse as Viktor Frankl’s moving Holocaust memoir Man’s Search for Meaning and Russell Crowe’s raw, emotional turn in 2000’s Gladiator.

    Popular culture has provided a rich wellspring of ideas, generally. “The Handmaid’s Tale came out at just the right time for me. And, even in a more kind of bombastic way, Game of Thrones. I even emailed the company and said, ‘tell the dancers to watch it if they have time’. I’m not sure if they have. But Crassus, I’m ­basing him on Joffrey, and he’s Trump as well, and he’s Kim Jong-un, and he’s Hitler, he’s Rome.”

    Dark and light, good and evil — primarily, he wants a dark and beautiful Spartacus with a spine of emotional intensity. He quips that he realised the art form was “porn for older people” at the age of eight, watching his first Swan Lake in Albury-Wodonga, on the NSW-Victoria border. To this end, there will be no masking of the raw lust and jealousy that drives the Crassus-Flavia-Aegina storyline, the spine of the ballet.

    • • •

    The power to transform Spartacus from Soviet museum piece to living classic lies primarily in its lead dancer. Some of the greats have brought the role to vivid life, including the Bolshoi’s Ivan Vasiliev, who astonished the ballet world with his bravura display of volcanic power, rage and angst in his stellar 2010 Covent Garden turn; as The Telegraph wrote, “even when seven feet clear of the stage, Vasiliev is immersed in character … it is like watching a

    Kevin Jackson as Spartacus. Picture: Justin Ridler
    Kevin Jackson as Spartacus. Picture: Justin Ridler

    tormented tiger bound from its cage”.

    Jervies is thrilled with his Spartacus, company principal Kevin Jackson. “He is just the perfect artist to work on. He showed all these sensitivities in Nijinsky (staged by the AB in 2006), he’s done everything in his career, and this piece requires everything — the virtuosic male dancer, but also the quiet, tortured, conflicted soul trying to get his humanity back.”

    Jackson is fascinated by the role. As with ­Nijinsky, here is a chance to build a character from scratch, explore psyche and psychology.

    It is a rare pleasure for a dancer to work like an actor in the rehearsal room, he says. He loves working with Jervies, picking at the bones of the libretto, filleting the role and mastering the choreography, a blend of a more contemporary style for the slaves and more classical for the Romans, with most of the traditional mime elemen­ts stripped away: “Lucas is really using dance itself as a language.”

    Choreographer Lucas Jervis, right, looks on as Marcus Morielli, top, and Jake Mangakahia rehearse. Picture: Aaron Francis
    Choreographer Lucas Jervis, right, looks on as Marcus Morielli, top, and Jake Mangakahia rehearse. Picture: Aaron Francis

    Still, it’s a tricky task. Going big in ballet is easy, and Spartacus is the perfect vehicle for dramatic, showy and larger-than-life gestures. Far more difficult are the subtler brushstrokes.

    He cites a scene where he stands motionless with his back to the audience at a slave auction, quivering with suppressed rage and grief that he realises only later he has “acutely internalised” as he stands there imagining himself as a refuge­e, degraded and dehumanised. Like the blank spaces between words, a whole dramatic world can be conveyed in silence and stillness.

    “You feel that because you are on stage, ­because it’s not film and it’s far away, you have to make this big image, but sometimes the most subtle of actions and thoughts can fly across the orchestra pit,” Jackson says.

    Like Jervies, he sees powerful contemporary resonances. How could you not, he asks, pointing to Australia’s treatment of refugees. “These are real souls on these boats, not just things.” He sighs: this ballet has made him wonder anew if there is something in our DNA that compels us to enslave. It’s a zero-sum game of power and oppression, played “over and over again. ­Someone has to lose for someone else to win.”

    A key part of the preparations has been getting the look right. “We’re definitely in gladiator boot camp at the moment,” Jackson says, laughing. “I’m hoping to not completely change my physicality but enhance it so I look more like a gladiator than a ballet dancer, beef up a bit. I eat really healthy as it is but I’m adding a bit more protein and protein powder and carbs just to add a bit more bulk to the upper body. I’m trying to get all my food in, my gym work — it’s really intense.” Is he going after the Crowe look? He laughs. “I don’t think I’ll be able to bulk up that much. I’ve got Sleeping Beauty coming up, so I can’t be too massive.”

    He has also been working with fight director Nigel Poulton, who ran a training class for the ensemble late last year and who returned for more intensive training in elements of unarmed and empty-handed combat last month. Poulton, who has worked with opera singers and film and theatre actors, relishes working with ballet dancers; he worked with the New York City Ballet teaching swordplay for Romeo and Juliet, and he’s enjoying the same ease with AB ­dancers as they grasp the techniques. Fight choreography is as much an art form as dance, and Spartacus is the ultimate fight club ballet, he says with a grin. “Basically we are looking at a lot of wrestling, throwing, striking.”

    Stephen Heathcote as Spartacus in 1990.
    Stephen Heathcote as Spartacus in 1990.

    But it’s not all about executing flashy flying kicks; violence has more than just an aesthetic purpose in this ballet because Spartacus’s moral and spiritual evolution can be charted in these battle scenes: from fight to fight, we see him unfurl from raw, self-doubting fighter to formid­able gladiator and leader of men, Poulton says.

    He’s working closely with Jackson to draw out these finer nuances. “It is as much about his physical bearing in and out of the fights as … what he does in the fights, and it’s about talking to him about posture and rhythm and spatial awareness and spatial relationships.”

    Jackson is aware of the tyranny of comparisons. Already on social media, he says, laughing, there is talk about how his Spartacus will compare with Steven Heathcote’s now classic­, full-blooded turn in his 1990 debut. “He was amazing in that role,” Jackson says. “I feel like I’m lying in the shadow of past legendary dancers in this country and also all over the world.”

    Pressure aside, Spartacus is a dream role for the male dancer; it harks back to the glory days of Nureyev and Baryshnikov and their explosive propulsion of ballet men on to centre stage.

    Jackson is battle-ready. He knows that some will prefer the old swords-and-shields version, but he is proud to be building a new ballet that doesn’t flinch from referencing the real world. “What Lucas is doing here is important. This is not just an old story being brought back to life,” he says. “I hope this ballet makes people reflect and notice the world they’re living in.”

    The Australian Ballet’s Spartacus plays at the Arts Centre Melbourne from September 18-29, and at the Sydney Opera House from November 9-24.

    Read Next

    4 people listening
    Peter avatarJohn avatarTerryd avatar


    Avatar for John

    Trying to represent the Trump or any other US administration as totalitarian tyranny, when Trump is accountable to the electorate by mid-term and full- term elections and numerous checks and balances, is downright leftist ridiculous misrepresentation. Get over it...Trump was elected, not imposed on America.

    Avatar for Terryd

    @John  Absolutely, well said. To mention the democratically elected Trump in the same vein as Stalin, North Korea and the Third Reich is highly offensive and plain ridiculous. Verghis stands condemned.

    Avatar for Peter

    The bush dances I went to were never like this.

    5geoffreyRoslynAnthony & JoanTerrydLikeReply

    The Australian's website does not support your current browser version.

    Please take a moment to upgrade to the latest version.

    Internet Explorer

    v11 or later

    Upgrade now

    Subscribe promo image