A Spartacus of Africa

After years of planning and preparation, A Spartacus of Africa takes to the stage in Johannesburg and Cape Town this June.

Spartacus (113BC- 71BC) was a Thracian who was made a slave, and later, due to his impressive strength, a gladiator. In 73BC, he was one of a number of gladiators to plot their escape. According to Wikipedia, ‘the plot was betrayed’; nevertheless, Spartacus and about 70 others armed themselves with ‘kitchen implements, fought their way free from the school, and seized several wagons of gladiatorial weapons and armour.’

These events would ultimately lead to the Third Servile War, a battle between Roman forces and a vast band of rebelling slaves and other ‘recruits’. They also earned Spartacus a near legendary status, forever enshrining him as a champion of freedom (although his actual motives remain unclear). Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian, who in 1954 composed the score for a ballet about the Thracian hero (albeit with a storyline only vaguely related to historical events), wrote that he thought of Spartacus as ‘describing the mighty avalanche of the antique rebellion of slaves on behalf of human rights.’

Khachaturian’s Spartacus premiered in Leningrad in 1956 with choreography by Leonid Yakobson and was revised with new choreography by Yuri Grigorovitch in 1968. The ballet was looked upon with favour by the Russian authorities, and awarded the Lenin prize. However, Betsy Schwarm for the Encyclopedia Brittanica suggests that while the authorities may have interpreted the work as reflecting the Russian proletariat’s overthrow of the ‘their tsarist oppressors’, Khachaturian himself may have intended it as a call to action against the repressive Soviet leaders of the time, as ‘Khachaturian… had spent much of his life under the watchful eye of Joseph Stalin, and… seen friends and colleagues disappear into the night.’

Veronica Paeper’s take on the ballet, which she first choreographed for Capab in 1984 using Khachaturian’s score, thus continued a legacy of interpreting the ancient hero’s story as an allegory for the struggle of oppressed against oppressor. Thirty years later, she has returned to the subject. A Spartacus of Africa is set in a mythical African country, and according to a press release, ‘mirrors the oppression that various African countries have fought to overcome, and presents an excellent opportunity for a large cast of classical ballet and contemporary dancers to give the story 21st century relevance.’

A Spartacus of Africa tempers Khachaturian’s score with the sound of African drumbeats, while Paeper’s classical ballet choreography is blended with the contemporary African dance choreography of David Krugel. All of which is performed by a cast of around 100 dancers – 35 professionals, and some 60 student dancers, all chosen through a rigorous audition process across three cities – as well as a number of international stars. The Washington Ballet’s Brooklyn Mack and Andile Ndlovu (originally from South Africa) along with South African Casey Swale all take on the role of Spartacus, while Lara Turk, a South African soloist with the Royal Ballet in London, Elzanne Crause and Kristen Wilson perform in the principal female roles.

The dancers will be accompanied by an orchestra of some 70 musicians (poetically echoing the number of slaves involved in the original escape!). The costumes, designed by Dicky Longhurst, have been brought to fruition under the guidance of Penny Simpson, and Cape Town’s KHM architects have specially designed projected sets, while a community project of Masiphumelo women has plaited old green plastic bags into vines to form part of the set. (According to historical accounts, Spartacus succeeded in foiling the Roman attempt to starve the escapees down from Mount Vesuvius by climbing down an unguarded part of the mountain using plaited vines).

The realisation of A Spartacus of Africa has been made possible by the efforts of SANDT (South African National Dance Trust), formed in 2009 with Veronica Paeper, Mike Bosazza and Robyn Taylor as trustees. SANDT acquired funding from the National Lottery Distribution Fund, the National Arts Council and the Arts & Culture Trust, along with private funders and trusts, thus making a production of this magnitude possible – no mean feat.

Thus, after years in the making, A Spartacus of Africa will finally debut at the Joburg Theatre on 4 June 2015, followed by a Cape Town première at Artscape’s Opera House on 27 June. Don’t miss it!

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