Ambivalent about Spartacus in Africa

Spartacus (111-71BC) was possibly Thracian, a gladiator and an accomplished military leader.  Very little is actually known about him.  In 73-71 BC he joined up with Crixus, Oenomaus, Castus and Grannicus, all escaped slave leaders in an uprising against the Roman Republic.  Initially their group consisted of 78 escaped gladiators, but it grew to over 120 000 men, women and children.  The fighting forces were surprisingly effective, and they only became unstuck when they threatened to attack Rome itself. At this point Rome fielded a force of 8 legions under Marcus Crassus who ruthlessly crushed the rebel army. Spartacus went missing in action, and was presumed dead.

Brooklyn Mack as Amari.  Photo by Bill Zurich.

Brooklyn Mack as Amari. Photo by Bill Zurich.

Idealogically 20th century retellers of the story sometimes depict Spartacus as a freedom fighter with a mission to change a corrupt Roman society and to end slavery.  Nothing historical exists to give any support to this romantic idea.  They were mercenaries, in it for the plunder.

The original classical ballet score by Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) was composed in 1954 and first staged in 1956 with choreography by Leonid Yakobson in 1956.  In 1958 it was restaged at the Bolshoi Theatre with choreography by Igor Moiseev and in 1968 with choreography by Yury Grigorovich.  Veronica Paeper choreographed a version in 1984 for CAPAB.  In about 2007/2008 dance lovers started hearing about plans to stage a modern version of Spartacus which would incorporate dancers and choreographers from a variety of dance disciplines, dance companies and dance schools and studios.  I was incredibly excited by this prospect.

I attended the World Premiere of Veronica Paeper’s Spartacus of Africa on 4 June 2015 at the Joburg Theatre. The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Paul Hoskins accompanied the ballet and it is wonderful to have live music for the ballet, and that contributed much to my enjoyment of the evening. The talented Brandon Phillips will be conducting the Cape Town run, and this young man is to be trained as a dance specialist conductor. Live music adds so very much to a ballet performance and it really was a treat to hear the orchestra playing this lovely music. David Krugel was the assistant choreographer and the wonderful set was designed by KMH Architects.  Costume design was by Dicky Longhurst.  Lighting design was by Nicholas Michaletos.

All in all at a superficial level I found the evening to be a success and I enjoyed the dancing and the music and the sets and generally had a good time (remember that I am an aging white audience member when I do some critical analysis below). There was a wonderful energy from the multitude of wonderful dancers on stage, enriched by the orchestra, and a buzz of anticipation.  The audience itself was small, but knowledgeable about dance and theatre. It was, however, disappointingly small with the Joburg Theatre being only two thirds full.  It has a long run and I am not sure that attendances will improve.

The storyline has been Africanised and there are six named characters:  Isenyaya, an ancestor and manipulative spirit; Amari, a Spartacus of Africa – a man who is willing to die for freedom; Fayola, Amari’s beloved wife whose devotion for him is absolute; Nagash, the powerful and cruel chief of a rival tribe; Nadira, Nagash’s favourite; Badu, Nagash’s jealous and conniving younger step-brother.  No inkling of who danced which role was given to me at the registration table and as I sat very far back (my preferred seating) I couldn’t see the details of the dancer’s faces which was largely irrelevant because I don’t know the Cape Town dancers.  I did think, however, that Andile Ndlovo was dancing the role of the ancestor.  He advised me that this was not the case and that he would be dancing the lead role on Saturday afternoon.

The promised mix of all (or most) contemporary and ballet dancers was not part of the Spartacus of Africa company and the professional dancers were all drawn from the ranks of Cape Town ballet companies and studios.  The over 40 strong student cast in Johannesburg was drawn from Pro-Arte Alphen Park, Reddam House Dance, TUT, Oakfields College, Manuelo Lourero Dance Academy, National School of the Arts, Paula Olivier School of Dance, Southdowns Dance Academy, Terri Krawitz, Eunice Marais, Anneliese Venter, Dance 4 Joy, Elaine Ballet School, Kmad, AISJ, Suzanne Holmes, Tracey Merrick, Joanne Bobrow, Cheryl Newman, Bowring Levin School of Dance and the Rita Badenhorst School of Dancing.

While I loved the fact that the work was mostly intended to be a timeless portrayal of a generic Africa, that there was no inclusion of the mainly black contemporary companies or input from choreographers working in the black African contemporary dance context impacted HUGELY on the survival potential for this work.  For a work so long in the making it is clear that very little consultation was done on where we are in Africa right now, or even research into what some historical and mythical generic Africa might be like. As a result what we got was the dance equivalent of the statue of Rhodes at UCT – a dated and sadly twisted perspective of Africa drawn from a Eurocentric perspective, almost a parody of black Africa in the same way as white people sometimes parody the accents of black people speaking English.  It was insulting to Africans of every hue everywhere. While I doubt this was the intention the choreographic reduction of an uprising which shocked the Roman Empire was reduced to a tribal conflict spurred on by a jealous lover. It was all very disappointing.

Particularly problematic was the make-up which had Maori-like art work on the bodies of the dancers.  If that was supposed to make them more African, it failed.  Another horrible failure was the intention of making the female dancers look naked from the waist up.  If a dancer is going to be naked, let her be naked.  If she is going to be dressed let her be dressed with dignity.  The flesh coloured costumes fool no one and make it look so contrived. In fact the costuming by Dicky Longhurst was largely a failure, with women being dressed in strangely Eurocentric skirts and the men looking odd, a particularly strange look being the red underpants worn by the “Roman” tribe. This is just wrong on so many levels.  If the work is set in the mists of time, the red underpants are hideously anachronistic.  If the work is set is contemporary Africa then it is simply ridiculous.

The lighting was mostly bland, lacking the gorgeous sunrises and sunsets and the blazing heat of the African sun.  There was a green light which gave us green grass, much like the Emerald Isle or freshly mown lawn of a country golf estate, but nothing that spoke of Africa.

What was authentically African was the passion of each and every dancer on stage, their obvious commitment to the work, to dance and to Africa.  The same was true of the musicians, and ultimately the glorious marriage of music and movement swept the serious conceptual faults away and transported the audience into that place where one is caught up as one with the artists.  That’s a happy space.  I doubt, however, that it is enough to give this work a place in South Africa’s permanent repertoire at home and abroad.

This is, however, still worth seeing.  It is on until 14 June 2015 at the Joburg Theatre, after which it will have a Cape Town run.


About moirads

Clergy person, theatre and music lover, avid reader, foodie. Basically, I write about what I do, where I go and things I love (or hate).
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1 Response to Ambivalent about Spartacus in Africa

  1. Daniela Joffe says:

    I’ve just seen the show in Cape Town and came online to see whether anyone else shared my sense of unease at the production’s dangerously stereotyped and outdated imagining of “Africa”.
    Like you, I was saddened to learn that there had been no input from black choreographers and, critically, costume designers–to me this seems unforgiveable, especially in 2015, when discussions around decolonisation and moving beyond Eurocentrism are more alive and more urgent than ever.
    Thank you for capturing it all so aptly in your review.
    I agree that the dancers redeemed the experience: their unrelenting passion and authenticity exploded the narrow narrative they’d been confined to and sent shivers down my spine.

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