Lucas Jervies, choreographer of The Australian Ballet’s new Spartacus, gives Nina Levy a peek behind the scenes.
Like many fans of The Australian Ballet, I imagine, when I think of the ballet Spartacus, I think of the famous 1990 poster image of Steven Heathcote in the title role, all leather straps and outstretched limbs. That production, by László Seregi, certainly served the company well. Originally choreographed in 1968 for the Hungarian State Ballet, Seregi’s Spartacus was first performed by The Australian Ballet (TAB) in 1978 and had its last outing more than 20 years later, in 2002.
Now TAB brings a brand new Spartacus to the stage, by Australian director and choreographer Lucas Jervies. Making its premiere in Melbourne as this issue hits the shelves, followed by a November season in Sydney, the new production began its life as a result of a conversation that took place between TAB Artistic Director David McAllister and Jervies in 2015. For Jervies, however, the idea of making a new Spartacus has been percolating for much longer. A former dancer with TAB, Jervies performed in the 2002 production, although he laughs at my use of the work “dance” in relation to his role. “Dance is a very big word,” he remarks. “I was a soldier, so… I marched in Spartacus back in 2002.
Nonetheless, Jervies tells me, the production made an indelible impression. “I remember watching Principals Robert Curran and Olivia Bell performing it, and falling in love with them. I remember saying to myself in the wings, ‘One day it would be great to tackle this.’ And now it’s happening!”
Jervies’ chance to make his dream a reality came when he was working for TAB as dramaturge for McAllister’s Sleeping Beauty, in 2015. “I was sitting in on David’s rehearsals. We would have lunch and I would give him my notes and we’d have a discussion about the work,” explains Jervies. “So I had his ear, and one day I hijacked one of those meetings. I said, ‘Can we talk about me and my career for a bit?’ He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘Spartacus.’
“His jaw dropped, and he said, ‘Really?!’ I replied, ‘Yeah! The music’s awesome, it’s a challenge, it’s essentially a love story and I’ve always loved it as an idea.’ I took the chance and pitched it to him and he loved it. So we’ve been talking about this work for about three years.”
Jervies will be working with the original score, created by Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian in 1954. As the name suggests, the ballet is loosely based on the life of Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator who led a slave uprising against the Romans between 73 and 71 BC. With themes of freedom and passion, Jervies says there are many aspects of the story that appeal to him as a choreographer.
“Of course, being a male dancer, it’s really exciting to be able to create a character for another male, and a complex character as well,” he says. “That’s something I’ve been working on, with the dramaturge, Imara Savage. She’s currently the resident director at Sydney Theatre Company and a very smart theatre maker. So creating this male lead was very exciting. And the themes within the story, of oppression; hope; courage; love; defiance; uniting a team, a brotherhood; standing up for what’s right – all of these wonderful themes are just so exciting to play with in the studio.”
The music is another element that excites Jervies. “You listen to it and it’s so accessible,” he remarks. “It’s fun and it’s fabulous. I was in a café with Ben Cisterne, the lighting designer, and we were playing the opening track, ‘The Triumphal March’ ... and the barista leant over and asked, “Is that Star Wars?” Ever since then that’s all I hear when that ‘Triumphal March’ starts. It’s a bit Sondheim, a little bit Star Wars.”
Jervies is also fascinated by what the score represents, given that it was written in 1954 under Stalin’s oppressive communist regime. Artists were expected to toe the line, by making work that was supportive of the ideology and politics of the Soviet government. Falling out of favour with Stalin carried with it the threat of career ruin or even imprisonment. “The score [for Spartacus] won the Lenin prize,” Jervies notes. “That in itself is problematic, when you think about what they did to artists back then – Prokofiev, Shostakovich were black-listed and Khachaturian was also, until he wrote Spartacus, and then he was welcomed back.
“So from a political perspective, it’s a challenging piece and that’s something we want to subvert or flip on its head,” continues Jervies. “I think Stalin thought that he was Spartacus and the [pre-revolution Russian] Royal Family were Crassus and the elite, but actually I think what Khachaturian is saying with the score, is, “No no, I am Spartacus and Stalin is Crassus. That’s something we’re trying to make clear in the production.”
That historical underpinning to the score provided a starting point for researching the work’s context, says Jervies. “Imara and I look at the score like a script – you have to consider the context in which it was written as you’re creating the production. There was even a stage when we were imagining it in Russia, after Stalin, as literal as that, and that was a great provocation and springboard into ancient Rome.”
While Jervies is retaining the ancient Roman setting of the work (“it’s called Spartacus, you can’t not set it there”), he is looking at the work through a contemporary lens, he says. “So all of these clichéd ancient Roman ideas have been reduced into something bold, simple and elegant,” he elaborates. “I’ve tried to take away a lot of the unnecessary detail so that the story-telling is done not just through movement but through big, bold image making.” . . .
This is an extract from an interview with Lucas Jervies with Nina Levy. You'll be able to read the full review in the October/November issue of Dance Australia, out later this month! Buy Dance Australia from your favourite retailer, purchase an online copy via the Dance Australia app or subscribe here.
Pictured top: The Australian Ballet's Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Ty King-Wall. Photo: Justin Ridler.