The Aus­tralian Bal­let’s stun­ning new pro­duc­tion of Spar­ta­cus is a gritty ex­am­i­na­tion of mas­culin­ity. By Jane Albert.


The Aus­tralian Bal­let’s stun­ning new pro­duc­tion of Spar­ta­cus is a gritty ex­am­i­na­tion of mas­culin­ity.

Kevin Jack­son has been dancing with the Aus­tralian Bal­let for 15 years now, work­ing six days a week, up to 14 hours a day. As he has pro­gressed through the com­pany ranks to the most se­nior po­si­tion of principal artist, he has no­ticed some­thing un­usual hap­pen­ing: his whole physique changes de­pend­ing on the bal­let he is per­form­ing, re­flect­ing the phys­i­cal de­mands of the role it­self.

When he sits down with Vogue Aus­tralia, he is dancing the Prince in artis­tic direc­tor David McAl­lis­ter’s pro­duc­tion of The Sleeping Beauty in Ade­laide, his body fluid and lithe. Men­tally, how­ever, he is plan­ning for one of his most phys­i­cally de­mand­ing roles yet, that of slave, glad­i­a­tor and rebel leader Spar­ta­cus, in a con­tem­po­rary take on the leg­endary tale. It is a role that calls for hard mus­cle and lean lines – brute strength – in a pro­duc­tion set to turn the con­cept of clas­si­cal bal­let on its head, its raw mas­culin­ity pre­sent­ing the male dancers of the com­pany in a star­tling new light.

For­mer Aus­tralian Bal­let dancer and NIDA-trained direc­tor and chore­og­ra­pher Lu­cas Jervies has dreamt of re­work­ing Spar­ta­cus since he re­turned to the com­pany as a sol­dier ex­tra for that very show, in 2002. “I re­mem­ber stand­ing in the wings think­ing: ‘I want to do this one day,’” he re­calls. His chance came when he was in­vited to be dra­maturge, or the­atri­cal con­sul­tant, when McAl­lis­ter’s pro­duc­tion of Beauty de­buted in 2015. “I thought David would laugh me out of the room, but his jaw just dropped. He’d wanted some­one to re­make it for a while; he was ex­cited from the be­gin­ning.”

Spar­ta­cus is be­lieved to have been a real fig­ure, a 1st-cen­tury BC slave­turned-glad­i­a­tor rebel who in­spired his fel­low slaves to rise up against their Ro­man op­pres­sors. His story has in­spired myr­iad books, films and bal­lets, from film­maker Stan­ley Kubrick to play­wright Ber­tolt Brecht and bal­let com­poser Aram Khacha­turian.

While an­cient Rome might not ap­pear to hold much con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance, for Jervies the story of Spar­ta­cus him­self does. “Slav­ery is at the high­est [level] it’s ever been, and when you look at regimes like North Korea, the mass pa­rades, the mega­lo­ma­niac leader; when you look at some of the rhetoric com­ing out of Amer­ica, I think: ‘That’s Rome.’ That was my start­ing point,” Jervies says. Work­ing with cel­e­brated French de­signer Jérôme Kaplan, Jervies’s Spar­ta­cus is set in a Bru­tal­ist-in­spired arena that reaches 10 me­tres high, dwarf­ing dancers and au­di­ences alike.

It is here, amid the cold mar­ble and coarse sandy floor, the ac­tion un­folds, open­ing with a mass pa­rade rem­i­nis­cent of North Korea and the Stalin era, and quickly pro­gress­ing to the glad­i­a­to­rial games, dur­ing which Spar­ta­cus is forced to fight and kill his best friend Hermes. Spurred to re­bel­lion, he in­cites his fel­low slaves to rise up against their cap­tors and help him free his cap­tive wife Flavia.

To re­alise the mul­ti­ple fight scenes con­vinc­ingly, Jervies turned to Aus­tralian pro­fes­sional fight direc­tor Nigel Poul­ton, who works across film, TV, bal­let, opera and theatre, from the New York City Bal­let to the cast of The Good Wife. “There are no weapons in the arena,” Jervies points out. “I wanted the fight­ing to be hand-to-hand com­bat, which is more bru­tal, more vi­o­lent, more risky, cre­at­ing more ten­sion.” Poul­ton taught the dancers skills rang­ing from ju­jitsu to capoeira, which Jervies then chore­ographed into a dance con­text.

Af­ter dancing clas­si­cal bal­let most of his life, Jack­son cau­tiously wel­comed learn­ing an en­tirely new phys­i­cal lan­guage. “It felt ex­tremely for­eign to us, but at a point I felt it was ac­tu­ally dancing: watch­ing your part­ner, com­mu­ni­cat­ing through your eyes, watch­ing for an ac­tion and re­ac­tion. I think Nigel is go­ing to make the men of the com­pany fight like wild an­i­mals; it’s an el­e­ment we haven’t seen on stage in a bal­let con­text. It will re­ally ex­cite the au­di­ence,” Jack­son says.

Pre­par­ing for the role of the charis­matic, brave, phys­i­cally in­tim­i­dat­ing leader Spar­ta­cus will re­quire near-un­prece­dented train­ing on Jack­son’s part. He is ap­proach­ing his Mel­bourne de­but in the role from the di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed physique re­quired of him in Sleeping Beauty, a pro­duc­tion he then goes back to for the com­pany tour of China in Oc­to­ber, be­fore Spar­ta­cus re­turns to the stage in Syd­ney. Such is life in a na­tion­ally tour­ing com­pany.

“My body re­ally takes on a role, which I’m grate­ful for, but when those roles are close to­gether it’s a chal­lenge,” Jack­son says. “It’s re­ally dif­fi­cult, be­cause I’ve been want­ing to get into my Spar­ta­cus body, but ob­vi­ously I can’t be the Prince in Sleeping Beauty and be all bulked up: I still need to be fluid.”

Of course, dancers are only as good as their bod­ies are strong, and Jack­son is aware how much care­ful prepa­ra­tion is needed. For Spar­ta­cus he has planned an in­ten­sive up­per-body work­out he’ll do in the gym each evening af­ter re­hearsal, al­low­ing enough time to ‘feed his mus­cles’ with a pro­tein-rich meal, hope­fully giv­ing his body the chance to re­cover be­fore the pas de deux and fight re­hearsals the fol­low­ing morn­ing. Clas­si­cal bal­let still re­quires a sup­ple, fluid tech­nique, so to coun­ter­act the weights ses­sions he will con­tinue his reg­u­lar tai­lored strength and con­di­tion­ing pro­gram. Given the in­tense phys­i­cal de­mands dancing Spar­ta­cus re­quires, Jack­son is par­tic­u­larly alert to any nig­gles or alarm bells his body may sound, tak­ing any con­cerns about po­ten­tial in­jury straight to phys­io­ther­a­pist Sue Mayes.

So highly re­garded is Mayes and the Aus­tralian Bal­let’s med­i­cal and phys­i­cal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion team they are sought out the world over. In late 2015, Bol­shoi Bal­let and Amer­i­can Bal­let Theater su­per­star David Hall­berg qui­etly re­lo­cated to Mel­bourne to work with Mayes to re­ha­bil­i­tate

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