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24 July, 2020

The action-packed origins of The Australian Ballet’s Spartacus

Spartacus has played an important role in The Australian Ballet’s repertoire since it was first presented in 1978. As the company’s recently commissioned version is presented in 2020, we re-visit the original production, its design and the opportunity the title role has held for generations of Australia’s leading male dancers.

 

Gary Norman and Marilyn Rowe in ‘Spartacus’, The Australian Ballet, 1978

 

Gary Norman and Marilyn Rowe in ‘Spartacus’, The Australian Ballet, 1978
Photograph by Branco Gaica
Courtesy of The Australian Ballet

 

Based on the fictionalised account of a Roman gladiator who led an uprising against the Roman republic, the ballet was created by the Hungarian choreographer László Seregi for the Hungarian State Ballet in 1968. It was set to a sweeping score by Aram Khachaturian and featured sets designed by Gábor Forray with costumes by Tivadar Márk. Both Hungarian designers, along with Seregi, travelled to Melbourne to help stage the ballet for its premier performance in Australia at the Palais Theatre in 1978. Forray’s striking setting helped emphasise the drama of the narrative, creating a harsh contrast between the gladiator’s compound in Act One and the colonnaded palace in Act Two. Large web-like nets were also incorporated around the stage adding a sense of entrapment to the overall effect.

 

Set design by Gábor Forray for ‘Spartacus’, Act One, The Australian Ballet, 1978

 

Set design by Gábor Forray for ‘Spartacus’, Act One, The Australian Ballet, 1978
Gift of The Australian Ballet, 1998
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Set design by Gábor Forray for ‘Spartacus’, Act Two, The Australian Ballet, 1978

 

Set design by Gábor Forray for ‘Spartacus’, Act Two, The Australian Ballet, 1978
Gift of The Australian Ballet, 1998
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The title role of Spartacus was first danced by Gary Norman with Marilyn Rowe as his wife, Flavia. Their doomed love story generated a passionate pas de deux that the work is now famous for and Norman and Rowe’s partnership was highly acclaimed. The rest of the male cast included Ross Stretton as Crassus, David Burch as Gad and Alan Alder as Crixus. The gladiatorial themes of the story meant that much of Seregi’s choreography involved fights with violent ends and an armoury described by one critic at the time as “knives, swords, spears and tridents”.

 

Mark Brinkley and Adam Marchant (centre) in ‘Spartacus’, The Australian Ballet, 1990

 

Mark Brinkley and Adam Marchant (centre) in ‘Spartacus’, The Australian Ballet, 1990
Photographer unknown
Gift of The Australian Ballet, 2015
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Spartacus has been staged as part of a number of international tours by The Australian Ballet and allowed many of the company’s leading dancers to shine on the world stage. Posters featuring Steven Heathcote in costume for Spartacus caused a sensation during the company’s New York season in 1990 and were famously “souvenired” at any opportunity. It was Spartacus that prompted Heathcote’s leap from The Australian Ballet School to the company in the early 1980s. He, along with fellow student David McAllister, were needed to boost the numbers of the male corps and like McAllister, he remained with the company performing principal roles to great acclaim for over 20 years.

 

Steven Heathcote in the title role of ‘Spartacus’, The Australian Ballet, 1990

 

Steven Heathcote in the title role of ‘Spartacus’, The Australian Ballet, 1990
Photograph by Earl Carter
Gift of The Australian Ballet, 2015
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

This production of Spartacus remained in The Australian Ballet repertoire until 2002 when Robert Curran made his debut in the title role with Olivia Bell as Flavia. Lucas Jervies had a walk-on role as a soldier that season and the work had a lasting impact on the budding choreographer. In 2018 Jervies was commissioned to create his own version for the company. Fuelled by many months of historical research and an awareness that slavery is still very much a reality around the world, Jervies’ Spartacus retains its ancient setting while resonating with a contemporary audience.

The Australian Ballet’s free cinema-quality digital season brings their full-length performances to Australians at home. Spartacus (Jervies and Seregi) is available 23 July until 6 August 2020.

Find out more about The Australian Ballet Collection at the Australian Performing Arts Collection.

 

Margot Anderson
Curator, Dance and Opera
Australian Performing Arts Collection

 

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