The Australian Ballet's Spartacus, currently running at Melbourne's Arts Centre, delivers a mesmerising display of masculinity, mostly through wildly explosive Colosseum battle scenes. The sheer strength of the company’s men is showcased through a series of flying fists and torso twists… gladiator’s backs glistening with sweat. TAB’s reimagined adaptation of the historic Ancient Roman story fuses violence, seduction, and the anguish of separation. It’s powerful, precise and passionate.

Kevin Jackson and Jake Mangakahia in TAB's <i>Spartacus</i> © Jeff Busby
Kevin Jackson and Jake Mangakahia in TAB's Spartacus
© Jeff Busby

The bold production has a commanding presence from the first curtain raise. Rows of giant red flags ripple through the air in synchronised fashion on a crisp all-white stage. Variations in the speed of the dancer’s sweeping movements create hypnotic fabric flutters, and the scene for the authoritarian regime is set.

‘Gasp’ moments include when a slave dancer is gripped by her skull and swung from her neck, and Cristiano Martino’s expertly executed turns in second that slices the air without faltering an inch. Dramatic, grounded movements put Martino’s Hercules-like physique on show, contrasted with fast jumps with flexed hands. Suddenly he’s springing into the air and rapidly changing directions like a bird in flight, keeping the choreography fresh and alluring. He powerfully portrays the pain of losing his friend Hermes in the gladiator games, urging his fellow comrades to rebel. The repeated motif of the pointing salute, this time adapted to reject the empire’s cult-like conformity, indicates the onset of the slave uprising in a clear and clever way.

Fists pounding the floor in unison add a layer of percussion to the already tense and dramatic score by Aram Khachaturian. Other musical moments are tender, with swirling strings carrying the audience into a soothing lull, during romantic partner work. The timing and transitions in the all-male fight scenes are faultless, the dancers barely escaping uppercuts and blows…. limbs flying at full force. Weapon specialist and stunt performer Nigel Poulton worked with the dancers to direct their combat skills. Choreographer Lucas Jervies has then turned the adrenalin-fuelled martial arts into movement that’s equally brutal and beautiful.

Kevin Jackson and Robyn Hendricks in TAB's <i>Spartacus</i> © Jeff Busby
Kevin Jackson and Robyn Hendricks in TAB's Spartacus
© Jeff Busby
Benedicte Bemet paints a fragile yet fiercely passionate persona as Flavia, and her commitment to emotive storytelling through dance is stunning to watch. It’s easy to empathise with her anguish as she longs for her lover Spartacus, who’s busy leading the slave rebellion. Her extensions transcend her fingertips and toes… and the reunion scenes between the pair evoke a great sense of comfort, and electric chemistry. There’s a gentle moment where Spartacus dreams of his wife, and the two spin circles around each other, reaching for – but never being able to – grasp one another. Dana Stephenson, who performed the role of Tertulla, is also to be commended for her skilful and sharp execution, a true delight to follow across the stage.

The attention to detail in the set and costume design by Jerome Kaplan is exquisite. The grandeur of a giant hand dominates as a centrepiece in the first act, while the dramatic arches of the Colosseum stretch several storeys high in the next. The female ensemble wears floaty silks in rich burgundy and emerald colours, with metallic crown headpieces. Certain set features give the audience an almost 4D experience, as campsites flicker with flames, and smoke emerges from Roman baths like hot steam. It’s the backdrop to a sensual scene with limbs rolling about the tub, in a tasteful but raunchy nod to the ancient romans indulgence in slaves, slaughter and sex.

The crucifixion scene, after the slaves succumb to the Roman army, is gory and shocking. Dancers drag giant posts across the stage, blood poured over their faces and dripping down their torsos, a symphony of suspenseful strings adding to the drama. One by one they are launched up on to narrow platforms, stark white light beaming down on their bloodied bodies. Bemet emerges solo metres below. She dances in a frenzied fashion, her anguish turning to delirium.

It’s a no holds barred finale that is a tragic end to a story about great leadership and love, in the face of oppression. The robust applause from the Arts Centre audience indicates they rode the rollercoaster of emotion with the performers, itching to share their gratification. A ‘boo’ to the Roman Army cast during the bows can only be seen as an achievement – the audiences’ hatred of the enemy, signifying their true allegiance with Sparatus and his courageous quest for freedom. It’s bold ballet, and it’s one of the Australian Ballet’s best.

*****