Spartacus Act I. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo Jeff Busby

Spartacus. The Australian Ballet (2018)

17 September 2018 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

The high point in this new production of Spartacus is the set design by French artist Jérôme Kaplan. The costumes are, for the most part, beautifully designed too, but the sets are exceptional. In all three acts the overriding approach is a minimalist one, both in structure and colour. The design never overpowers the dancing, although it towers above it and has a real presence of its own. In the first act we are faced with a huge, dominant hand with one finger raised, positioned  at the top of a very ceremonial-looking staircase. (The hand is modelled on the remains of a statue of the Roman Emperor Constantine who ruled early in the fourth century AD). Act II is distinguished by an elegant arched colonnade, and the closing act is just as powerful visually as, one by one, the bloodied slaves, who have been overcome by the Roman forces, stand on top of a diagonal row of huge rectangular blocks of faux concrete.

Emperor Constantine, fragments of a sculpture. Photo: Allan T. Kohl

Emperor Constantine, fragments of a sculpture. Photo: Allan T. Kohl (Rights: Creative Commons, used with attribution)

There are quite powerful references, too, to some current ideologies, which choreographer Lucas Jervies clearly sees as resonating with the power and dominance that characterised ancient Rome. As the work opens, for example, we see a street parade with rows of dancers clad in short, white, sporty outfits moving in unison and waving red flags. This Spartacus is for today, although it follows in basic terms the story of the rebel slave Spartacus and his wife Flavia.

I wish, however, I could be more positive about the choreography. Jervies engaged fight director and weapon and movement specialist Nigel Poulton to choreograph the fight scenes, which are pretty much a constant feature of this Spartacus. And Poulton clearly did a great job. No swords here. It was all punching, slapping, hands-on fighting, and quite violent for the most part. But beyond the fighting, I felt that Jervies did not have a strong feel for spatial patterns or for how to make the most of the space of the stage in general. Much of the choreography seemed very earthbound with, to my mind, an over-emphasis on angular arm movements. Then at other times it seemed too classical for words as in the dance for the slaves in Act II.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Spartacus' Act II, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Spartacus, Act II, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

I had the good fortune, however, as often happens with a matinee towards the end of a season, of seeing main roles being taken by artists who are moving up the ranks. On this occasion Spartacus was danced by Cristiano Martino, a company soloist, and Flavia by Benedicte Bemet, also a soloist. They acquitted themselves well and Martino in particular, with his strong, muscular body, really suited the role. But for me, although they looked longingly at each other at times, their performance lacked passion, which may well have been a result of passionless choreography. Still, it was a real pleasure to see them perform as they did in such demanding roles.

Cristiano Martino as Spartacus. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Kate Longley

(top) Cristiano Martino as Spartacus; (bottom) Cristiano Martino as Spartacus and Benedicte Bement as Flavia. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photos: © Kate Longley

Once again, however, my eye was drawn to Joseph Romancewicz in the corps (as it was earlier this year in The Merry Widow). New to the company this year, Romancewicz has such a strong stage presence and an innate ability to interact with his fellow dancers. Not only that, he is also able to draw the audience into the action. Wonderful!

Lucas Jervies’ Spartacus was interesting theatre but I kept thinking it would be better with spoken text than with dancing.

Michelle Potter, 19 November 2018

Featured image: Spartacus Act I. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Spartacus Act I. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in 'Cinderella'. Photo Jeff Busby

Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. The Australian Ballet

19 September 2013, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre

What a magical, mesmerising and eccentrically beautiful Cinderella Alexei Ratmansky has created for the Australian Ballet. I have to admit to goose bumps on many occasions so thrilling was the storytelling, the choreography, the scenic design and the performance.

The story we know so well is intact in its outlines but Ratmansky has made the work his own, and boldly so. The clues we get to the era in which this ballet is set come largely from the set and costumes by Jérôme Kaplan and from the projection design by Wendall K. Harrington. With their references to surrealist artists such as Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico, and even perhaps to a Dada film, Fernand Leger’s Ballet mécanique, and the Bauhaus work by Oskar Schlemmer, Triadic Ballet, we can place this Cinderella in the 1920s or 1930s. But the universality and theatricality of the visual elements, including the Act I setting of a proscenium arch within the theatre’s own proscenium arch, put it into an era beyond eras.

Leanne Stojmenov in Cinderella, 2013. Photo Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov in Cinderella. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

As Cinderella, Leanne Stojmenov brought a range of emotions to the role. She was lost in dreams as she danced alone while the Stepsisters readied themselves for the Prince’s ball; full of sadness when the Stepmother slashed the portrait of her now dead mother; caring as she welcomed the somewhat outlandish Fairy Godmother into her home; shy as she tried out dance steps at the ball; pensive as she wondered whether she would meet the Prince again; and ultimately joyous as she danced the final pas de deux with him. It was a finely sculpted performance.

As the Prince, Daniel Gaudiello also presented us with a well-defined character with a strong personality. Dressed stylishly in a white suit he was the man in charge as he interacted with his guests and as he travelled the world seeking the owner of the slipper left behind at the ball. On this world tour we saw some of Gaudiello’s best dancing. A series of grands pirouettes finishing with multiple turns was beautifully executed. And what a spectacular exit he made as he left the stage at the end of that scene. But with his Cinderella he was a different man, much less hard-edged. And the final pas de deux is such a glorious piece of choreography. Two two bodies move together as one, bending and twisting, making complementary lines with arms and legs, and finishing so softly and gently.

At times the choreography was surprising as is so often the case with Ratmansky. Feet, arms, upper bodies, everything really, moved in unexpected ways. A pirouette had the foot at the cou de pied position, a cabriole appeared from nowhere, bodies bent forward when one expected them to bend back. And Ratmansky is a master at telling the story, creating a character, and giving clues to and motifs for future moments in the story through choreographic and dramatic methods. I wondered why the Fairy Godmother, played with style by Lynette Wills wearing a kind of bowler hat, long dark clothing and black glasses, disappeared into the grandfather clock in Cinderella’s house. But it became clear later. And the beautiful swirl of black-caped figures, holding Roman numerals and circling the stage as the Fairy Godmother advised Cinderella to leave the ball at midnight, was also reprised in a surprising way later.

Leanne Stojmenov and Lynette Wills in 'Cinderella'. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby
Leanne Stojmenov and Lynette Wills in Cinderella. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby

There were some wonderful performances from others in the cast. Ingrid Gow and Hailana Hills as the Skinny Stepsister and the Dumpy Stepsister respectively had some hilarious moments, as did Amy Harris as the rather vindictive Stepmother. I also admired the performances of the celestial bodies who transport Cinderella to the ball (no pumpkin coach in this production), although it was hard to identify the dancers from where I was sitting and another viewing is needed to match some of the various planets represented with their costumes.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Cinderella' 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Stepmother, the Skinny Stepsister and the Dumpy Stepsister have their hair done for the ball. Artists of the Australian Ballet in Cinderella 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

As for the scenic transformations, they were astonishing, breathtaking. It was not only the surprise they generated when they happened, but also the way the lighting by Rachel Burke was used to enhance every transformation, as well as the spectacular use of fabric of various kinds to assist the transformations—in fact the use of diverse fabric textures throughout the ballet in costuming and elsewhere gave us yet another magnificent scenic element. And musically, I have never heard the Prokofiev score sound so clear and so distinctive. Without wanting to take away from the orchestral playing, Ratmansky’s choreography is so attuned to the music that it adds a visual element to the sounds that allows me at least to hear the music differently.

I look forward to seeing this remarkable work again during the Sydney season. Let’s hope it remains in the repertoire for a long time to come. It is sheer magic, brilliantly conceived, and a truly immersive experience. All hail Ratmansky and his team.

Michelle Potter, 21 September 2013

Featured image: Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in 'Cinderella'. Photo Jeff Busby

For my comments after a second viewing in Sydney follow this link. See also my comments on David Hallberg’s performance as the Prince published by DanceTabs.