Posted on 05 December 2017 By Rose Mulready

Choreographer Lucas Jervies is making his mainstage debut for The Australian Ballet with a brand-new production of Spartacus. He talks Khachaturian, Kevin Jackson and codpieces with Kate Scott.

Why Spartacus?
I’ve loved it ever since I can remember. It’s wild, it’s bold, it’s romantic, it’s a little bit musical theatre. The story is fascinating and it’s a legend that lives on. It has a male lead, and there aren’t many ballets that do. It just kept coming back to me, and I had to ask David McAllister, “Can I make it?”

What’s your approach to this epic story?
It’s definitely going to be set in Rome, but it’s an ancient Rome that resonates with contemporary society. And I think that’s really important, considering slavery is rife today. In Mauritania, in Northern Africa, there’s an appalling situation going on where the government just denies completely that slavery exists. North Korea is exporting workers to Kuwait and other areas, and then not paying them. And I think in Australia it’s estimated there are something like 3000 people working in slavery – that’s shocking. I think we need to create a world on stage that resonates with these themes and these ideas.
My process involves a lot of research into all of that – I went to a Spartacus exhibition in Rome just a few weeks ago, which demonstrated that beautifully. It juxtaposed archaeological finds from that period with photography of modern-day slavery to draw the parallels and to show us that this stuff’s still going on. I’m putting all of these ideas into a funnel, and then just listening to the music, coming back again and again to the music, and getting a feel for what Khachaturian was really trying to say with his work.

The music is your anchor, then.
That’s right. I’m lucky to be working with Imara Savage, who is a director at Sydney Theatre Company, and is one of the smartest theatremakers in the country. Last week all we did was just sit with the music, read articles, look at images, and then come back to the music again. What is Khachaturian trying to say? I think it’s pretty clear in the music. He was blacklisted by Stalin for being too avant garde and taking too many risks. It wasn’t until he started making really popular melodies that he was allowed back in, and commissioned to make Spartacus.

Jarryd Madden and Robyn Hendricks dance Jervies' Spartacus pas de deux at Ballet Under the Stars, 2016. Photography Kate Longley

What was your first exposure to the ballet Spartacus?
I saw the video of The Australian Ballet’s production [of Laszlo Seregi's Spartacus] a long time ago. And then I was actually part of the last production that the company did in 2002 – I was a soldier, just a walk-on role. I watched from the wings as Olivia Bell, my good friend, danced the role of Flavia with Robert Curran, another good friend. I kind of really fell in love with their relationship. Since then I’ve thought, “I’d love to do this.”

You were thinking of setting this production of Spartacus in modern times for a little while, is that right?
I think everything has been a consideration: when you’re tackling something this big, everything is on the table. There could be a version that’s completely contemporary and lives in a world of electricity. But I like the primitive world of Rome and I think the psychology of that time fuels the stakes. So yes, we’re in ancient Rome, but trying to find gestures or situations or character relationships that resonate with more contemporary ideas. Schindler’s List has been a really interesting reference point: that awful scene where they herd the prisoners in Dachau; the selection process and the dehumanisation of them. What’s the psychology involved in controlling another person? It’s about dehumanising them. It’s very important that we start at that place, but I don’t think the end product should reflect that wholeheartedly. Otherwise, what’s the difference between turning on the news and going to the ballet, you know? It’s going to be interesting to step into the ballet paradigm and digest all of that information, and then something else comes out; it’s transposed.

Tell me about your trip to Rome. What feelings did the Colosseum inspire in you?
Beauty and terror, those are the two words that keep coming back to me. It’s such a beautiful monumental structure, but it celebrated and advocated death and blood. And a lot of totalitarian regimes do that. These giant structures are very impressive and dominating, and they’re supposed to make you submit.

What other research have you done?
The main objective of the Europe trip was to go to Paris and work with [costume and set designer] Jérôme Kaplan. Then I went to the Louvre because there were a lot of Roman artefacts there, including a bust of Crassus, which was really interesting. And then I went to Rome, I went to Florence, I went to Venice, I went to the countryside; I’ve been reading a lot, including works by Roman historians such as Appian and Plutarch.

Robert Curran in Laszlo Seregi's Spartacus, 2002. Photography Branco Gaica

The Australian Ballet’s audiences would know Jérôme Kaplan from his brilliantly imaginative sets and costumes for Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. Tell me about your decision to work with him on Spartacus.
Because this is my first full-length ballet, David McAllister thought it was important to place me with someone very experienced in classical ballet storytelling. So I went to Paris to meet Jérôme, and we got along brilliantly. The Fellini film Satyricon is something we both responded to, so I think that will heavily influence the costumes.

Are there going to be leather codpieces?
Hopefully not! Essentially, ballet is about telling a story with the body, and everything needs to support rather than distract from that.

You’re creating the title role of Spartacus on Principal Artist Kevin Jackson. What qualities drew you to him?
Kevin is a superb dancer. He’s proven himself time and time again. I first worked with him in 2010, on a small project I did with Robert Curran called Human Abstract. Kevin was one of the dancers in that, and he was fabulous. I could throw him a task and he would solve it.
He’s creative, he’s fluid, he’s effortless, yet he has a really muscular form – all of that works beautifully together.

The photograph of Steven Heathcote as Spartacus, arms and legs defiantly outstretched, is one of The Australian Ballet’s most iconic images. What new things do you think Kevin will bring to the role?
I think a softness. In some of the Roman historians’ writings on Spartacus – Appian is one – they say that he was a gentle figure, and the other slaves would call him father. They really leant on him for support, and they described him almost as a Buddha, or a Jesus type of character. Instead of just portraying him as this brute, I think it would be really interesting to show him as more like Gandhi, you know, a peaceful kind of power. I think Kevin could do that really well.

As you mentioned, Spartacus is fantastic work for male dancers. What are some of the qualities that make The Australian Ballet’s male dancers so powerful?
They’re athletic, they’re relaxed, they’re funny, they’re very dedicated, they’re very easygoing, they’re expansive in their movements. I think they reflect Australian culture in general, actually, which is really nice.

Kate Scott is the editor of Luminous: Celebrating 50 Years of The Australian Ballet

Jarryd Madden and Robyn Hendricks dance Jervies' Spartacus pas de deux at Ballet Under the Stars, 2016. Photography Kate Longley