SHOW OF STRENGTH
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