Spartacus: Love to Hate

Posted on 17 September 2018 By Rose Mulready

Soloist Christopher Rodgers-Wilson writes about going from romantic lead roles to the arch-villain Crassus in our new Spartacus. It feels good to be bad!

I’ve often thought it would be plenty of fun to play a villain. Watching characters like Tybalt in Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet or Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, I’ve been left with conflicting feelings, both horrified and unable to tear my eyes away. I never thought I would get the chance to play a villain myself, but our new production of Spartacus, choreographed by Lucas Jervies, is affording some of the male dancers an exciting challenge: creating a true force of evil. In this dramatic story of a slave rebellion in ancient Rome, the merciless General Crassus will stop at nothing to keep control of the empire. I recently spoke with Lucas and my fellow Crassuses, principal artists Ty King-Wall and Adam Bull, about our inspirations for the role and the creative process of becoming a baddie.

Chris tries on Crassus' laurel wreath. Photography Kate Longley

None of us are well versed in playing villains – we’re cast most frequently in the more romantic roles. Adam had an introduction to the more sinister side of ballet when he danced the dark and manipulative Serge Diaghilev in John Nuemeier’s Nijinsky; he says that “it can get a little scary, taking yourself to those dark places.” Ty adds that Albrecht, the male lead in Giselle, “could be interpreted as a baddie”, but he ultimately shows remorse for his reckless behaviour. For me, it will be a totally new experience to dance a villain – I’ve usually been cast in more happy-go-lucky roles – but one I’m very much looking forward to. Playing the bad guy is an exciting and liberating challenge, a welcome departure from my usual artistic realm.

Chris and Benedicte Bemet in Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow. Photography Daniel Boud / Adam with Kevin Jackson in Nijinsky. Photography Jeff Busby / Ty King-Wall in Giselle. Photography Jeff Busby

Marcus Licinius Crassus was a Roman General in the 1st century BCE, charged with taking down Spartacus and his rebels in the Third Servile War. During this conflict, Crassus famously revived the ancient practice of decimation. His men were forced to draw straws and kill one in every ten of their own soldiers. This brutal method befits a true villain.

Our task as dancers is to take this historical background and create a brand-new character in the context of the ballet. For initial inspiration we sat in the studio with Lucas and discussed everything from historical dictators to films like Gladiator and The Hunger Games. Leaders of oppressive totalitarian regimes provided a starting point for discussion about Crassus’ character. Lucas reminded us that Aram Khachaturian’s music for Spartacus was composed under Stalin. He also mentioned screen characters: the spoilt and detestable Joffrey in HBO’s Game of Thrones was a significant inspiration for Crassus. In “his privilege, his position of power and abuse of that power”, he is a perfect example of a megalomaniac, an egotistical leader that shows no mercy as he maintains control over his world. For Lucas, Crassus is the antagonist to Spartacus’ goodness – two opposing forces around which to build the story. “I don't want the audience to sympathise with Crassus in any way,” he says.

Photography Kate Longley

As artists, how do we identify with someone like this and find our way into such a dark force? Ty suggests part of the puzzle is identifying qualities in baddies that we can relate to, “like ambition, competitiveness and anger. We now have the chance to turn up the volume on these parts of ourselves … although not to the point of method acting, for the sake of those close to us!” Adam points out that there is also a danger of going too far and becoming a caricature. Part of creating an authentic portrayal will be exploring the reasons the character became as they are, while retaining a sense of mystery. For me, the narcissism of a megalomaniac leader is interesting to explore, as is the tension that surrounds someone who can shift from a state of eerie calm to terrifying rage in the blink of an eye. All these ideas will help shape how we react physically and emotionally to our fellow characters.

Ty King-Wall as Crassus. Photography Kate Longley

In creating the movement for Crassus in the studio, it has been an ongoing challenge for us to find the quality that will match the character. Lucas has been generous with his ideas and inclusive of us all in the process of choreographing powerful solos and beautiful yet disturbing pas de deux for Crassus. He explains, “I want people to be conflicted by what they’re looking at – what he will be doing will be beautiful because this is ballet, but his interactions with and treatment of other people will be disgusting." The process has already provided some revelatory moments that have illuminated the character. Rehearsing a pas de deux last week with my fellow Soloist Dana Stephensen, I was taken aback to see, for the first time, fear in my partner’s eyes. It dawned on me that this is something I have never experienced, either on stage or in life. In all my previous dancing experiences, eye contact with my partner has meant empathy, joy, perhaps longing or sadness – but ultimately something unifying. Seeing her fearful expression was an impactful moment for me – I recognised how chillingly unresponsive Crassus is towards the suffering of others; he even inflicts pain on others as a form of entertainment.

Ty King-Wall and artists of The Australian Ballet rehearsing Spartacus. Photography Kate Longley

It will be a test of our dramatic skills to take on this guise and achieve the impact of Crassus’ power. Music and choreography are incredibly potent in their ability to inspire a character, and we also have some epic costumes to assist with the transformation. We will be adorned in black and gold, in long Romanesque ceremonial drapes and a golden laurel wreath, but this regal, noble exterior will only temporarily mask our truly abhorrent nature. Ultimately, I think it’s going to be an enriching experience to play such a different character and explore the darker parts of humanity – including the reasons why audiences often find villains as magnetic as they are maniacal. In wrapping up my conversation with Ty and Adam, we all agreed that although it will be a significant change not having the audience on our side, it is actually freeing to delve into the interpretation of this baddie. As Ty says, “If the audience is booing us at the curtain calls, we’ll know we’ve done a good job.”

Ty King-Wall and artists of The Australian Ballet rehearsing Spartacus / detail of Crassus' costume. Photography Kate Longley