By BRUCE DENNILL
A Spartacus Of Africa / Choreographed by Veronica Paeper and David Krugel / Joburg Theatre, Johannesburg
The story of the Thracian – Thrace was an area overlapping parts of modern Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece – slave, gladiator and revolutionary Spartacus, re-imagined as a balletic struggle (or perhaps Struggle in the South African context) set in Africa by local choreographer Victoria Paeper and her Dutch collaborator David Krugel features some of the dramatic shortfalls of the original legend. Plus a witchdoctor, which is now a standard dramatic mark of something being “African” (see The Lion King, The Nutcracker: Re-imagined and others).
To wit: the hero is impressive, but his intentions are less than crystal clear and after much sound and fury, signifying some striking athleticism, it all ends with a whimper.
The Joburg Theatre’s massive, multi-faceted stage is under-used, with the only permanent prop or set a line of trees halfway back. The space allows for the much-vaunted signature move from most of the versions of the ballet, where a mob of soldiers or revolutionaries (depending on the scene) emerges from the shadows, charging into the spotlight. The area to the rear is not always kept dark enough to obscure the dancers waiting there, however, which sometimes ruins the effect. And there being no use at all made of the lifts is just odd: there are nearly 100 cast members in this production, so making use of the means to maximise the impact of their presence should perhaps have been more of a priority in this particular setting (other stages don’t offer the same capacity).
The production’s greatest strength – the pulling together of dancers from a range of different backgrounds and companies – is also, perhaps, a limiting factor, as trying to collate all the various training methods into one coherent whole is a massive undertaking, and one that was perhaps avoided to some degree by the choreography.
This is not to say that everyone is left to their own devices, but there are certainly patterns in the principals’ routines that suggest that each of them was asked to operate within a restricted frame of reference, rather than required to overhaul their respective areas of expertise. The result is a whole that feels a little fragmented, especially when the staccato sequences of the corps are taken into account. With the exception of one slow, lyrical pas de deux in the third act, none of the routines are given space or time to flow, with the course of each collective movement interrupted – most often by yet more fight scenes.
Washington Ballet’s Brooklyn Mack, pictured, is strong in the sort-of title role (all the characters names have been changed, which is unnecessarily confusing, given that nobody says anything), looking the part and doing all that is asked of him as “Amari”, and both Kristin Wilson and Elzanne Crause as “Nadira” and “Fayola” respectively give performances that support their star billing.
Overall, then, the impression is of not much happening in a rather fussy fashion. Much energy is expended, but the impact made is simply not on the same scale.
The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra add a wonderful tone and vigour to Aram Khachaturian’s music. It’s been too long since the pit at the Joburg Theatre has been used to host such musicians in such a role, and here’s hoping A Spartacus Of Africa marks the beginning of a revolution in that sphere (live musical support for ballets). Let’s hope too that it’s an insurgency that turns out better than the title character’s crack at freedom in this piece.