State Theatre, Melbourne, Victoria, September 25, 2018
“Broken necks, splattered patellas, severed arteries: These are the things from which dreams are made of,” according to former professional wrestler, Road Warrior Hawk (ring name of Michael Hegstrand, 1957–2003). Said fellow former professional wrestler Cactus Jack (ring name of Mick Foley, 1965–), “if the Gods could build me a ladder to the heavens, I’d climb up the ladder and drop a big elbow on the world.” They might have been talking about old school wrestling, but on Tuesday night, their words could easily be re-moulded around the hulking form of Lucas Jervies’ world premiere of “Spartacus” created on the Australian Ballet in 2018.
At the 8th performance of “Spartacus” parallels to wrestling were shaped in place of Kirk Douglas brandishing a sword in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960s film of the same name. “Spartacus” was upfront, hand-to-hand, body-to-body combat, which, under the fight direction of Nigel Poulton, left no room to hide. But the fighting throughout was not there solely to entertain the makeshift arena of Melbourne’s State Theatre. Less, blood as spectacle, more, honesty in the face of omnipresent power. When not marvelling at the choreographed battles between gladiators, and, in particular, Ty King-Wall’s Crassus and poster boy, in and out of the theatre, Kevin Jackson as an exceedingly ripped Spartacus, it was the Meditations or spiritual reflections of Roman emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–180), who wrote, “the best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury,” which etched the muscle.
The very choreography within “Spartacus” appeared shaped around the curve of a muscle, with arms arcing the line of a bulging bicep or sharp like the cut of a deltoid. Visual references to the movement of wrestling allowed a new lexicon into the arena, with Jackson’s Spartacus anchored to and of the earth. Every palm that hammered the stage, every fist planted into the sand, every movement stretched like an arrow in a bow being drawn within the body’s casing forged a reconnection to purpose. Jackson’s Spartacus was the body as a weapon, but it was deeper than that. Jackson embodied an earthly gladiator of great moral sinew, his weighted stoicism in stark relief to a golden-fronted, power-soaked King-Wall, whose movements were of the air, upward and with self-appointed, god-like mis-leanings.
“Spartacus” delivered an abundance of rippling, flexing, popping, posturing, as befits an epic, but this was thankfully not one drawn along gender lines. Robyn Hendricks’ Flavia was strong and courageous, and raised from the same rock plane as Spartacus. In the relief sculpture of “Spartacus” 2018, from the Latin for ‘raise again,’ the emphasis was upon the oppressed rising up to their oppressors, again, and again. As Jervies described, “the whole notion of ‘masculine’ and ‘masculinity’ is something that I haven’t spent time with. When I consider the character Spartacus, he’s courageous, kind, and brave.… and when those qualities are manifested physically, he’s fluid and expansive in his movements, which are qualities women also exhibit in their practice, so it’s about finding a gender-neutral language.”
“Spartacus” for me was the exemplification of Aurelius’ belief that “the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.”
In a time when “it’s estimated that there are 40.3 million slaves throughout the world today, more than at any other time in human history,”1 “Spartacus” for me was the exemplification of Aurelius’ belief that “the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.” In a new ballet, one which was not about the glorification of violence, but the abuse of power, “Spartacus” may have been set in Ancient Rome, but it commented on the world it finds itself currently staged within. As Amy Harris,2 as Tertulla, the wife of Roman Consul, Crassus, beguiled, marvellously and grotesquely, as Hendricks, hooded (literally) and enslaved, cowered in the corner, the image potency was unnerving. Scenes of indifference to the suffering of another, sharper than any sword, I was torn between becoming ensnared by Tertulla and watching over Flavia. The stage littered with witnesses more interested in plucking grapes (literally, and as a euphemism) à la Caius, performed hungrily by Brett Chynoweth,3 this was the grit, realness, and, in turn, ambition of Jervies’ “Spartacus.” Seen through “a contemporary filter,” one which was aware “that this kind of tyranny is still very much alive today,”4 “Spartacus” as the universal symbol of resistance. “Spartacus” with an essence of hope thanks to Hendricks’ act III solo in the face of oppression. “Spartacus” as a warning against complacency and abetment of tyrannical regimes. Yes, the machinations for power are the same, then and now.
The clean, brutalist, awe-inspiring set design of Jérôme Kaplan rendered monumental the weight of power held by the State over its subjects. An arc became an arena, a recess in the wall, a den or a cage; and all lit to emphasise scale by Benjamin Cisterne. The balance of power was evident in every element that served to tower over and trap the enslaved against their will. Act I’s symbolic tearing down of a central monument of oppression echoed the familiar imagery of statues of Stalin, Marx, Lenin, Hussein in Baghdad, Napoleon I from top of the Vendôme Column et al. being toppled and smashed. With the finger of Constantine, the last Roman Emperor, pointed at the audience upon falling, history’s tipoff: ‘don’t be complicit.’
Arms scooped to an arrow head before being thrust into the earth or chest cavity; chests flung upon like fish on hooks; hands beaten upon hearts for truth or to layer a percussive sound; a pointed salute, re-appropriated; and crawling, clawing, cat-like on all fours, backwards; running, sliding, drawn, backwards: repeated motifs revealed the anguish and effort, and sought to humanise the message while forging a connection. Accompanied by Aram Khachaturian’s blockbuster of a score, the laid bare tenderness and strength of Hendricks and Jackson’s dawn pas de deux at the beginning of Act III wrapped me up in the cinematic swoon of it all, before finishing me off. When the curtain fell, a ringside, pummelled and pulped mess was I.