The South African National Dance Trust is presenting A Spartacus of Africa at the PE Opera House until Sunday November 6 and it’s simply unmissable for balletomanes in the Bay.
Choreographer Veronica Paeper has taken the tale of the ancient Greek king captured and enslaved by the Romans and recast it in an Africa which has seen its share of oppression and rebellion.
Hence slave leader Spartacus becomes Amari; Roman general Crassus becomes Nagash; Spartacus’s queen Phrygia becomes Fayola and Crassus concubine Aegina is Nadira. Then there is Badu, Nagash’s jealous brother, and Isenyaya, a manipulative ancestral spirit who casts his dark wings over everyone he touches.
The Opera House stage is small so Paeper’s original vision from the 1980s of battles and the escaped legion of slaves surging towards the audience cannot be replicated here.
The set therefore is also not on the scale of, for example, The Firebird which dominated the stage of the Guy Butler Theatre in Grahamstown over the National Arts Festival.
However, these restrictions make this touring version of A Spartacus of Africa altogether leaner and more nimble, stripping away the gladiatorial tale to focus on the six main characters.
From the moment the sumptuous red velvet curtains open to the dying breath of the hero of the tale, those in the audience at the Grand Old Lady of Whites Road were transported to another world.
Paeper’s choreography calls for dramatic as well as dance talent and the six principal dancers have this in spades.
Port Elizabeth’s Lwanele Masiza and Jamestown-born Xola Willie are well cast as the sparring brothers. The bodies slice through the air like finalists on America’s Got Talent, with their physical grace and strength an irresistible combination.
Casey Swales as Amari/Spartacus is another dancer you cannot take your eyes off. The beauty of his physique matches his technique and “ballon” where he almost seems to pause in mid air.
The “grand jetes” of Willie and Swales are a highlight as they soar across the stage as if their feet have springs inside that push them into the air. Although it may look effortless, it is certainly due to a steely discipline of practice and rehearsal.
As robust as Game of Thrones
Although attention spans in 2016 are shorter, A Spartacus in Africa is as pacey and robust as an episode of Game of Thrones. Ain’t nobody got time to sit through five hours of Hamlet anymore.
The slower, more pensive scenes are also absorbing and sensual with Nadira waylaying Nagush, and Amari comforting his Fayola in two evocative pas de deux.
An old-fashioned note in the programme to say who was dancing the lead roles would be nice: I am still not sure if I saw Elzanne Crause or Cuban dancer Dayana Acunña as Fayola. Whoever it was, however, captured the pathos of slavery and lost love with a tender precision.
And Kristin Wilson was mesmerising as the temptress Nadira, with a clear line at all times.
Bennie Arendse’s lighting design plays to the light and shade in Aram Khachaturian’s classical score.
Dicky Longhurst’s barely-there costumes reveal toned bodies both male and female: how the late designer must have adored seeing taut bodies ripple and gleam under his gauzy, bondage garments.
And bondage is exactly what Spartacus was fighting. According to the legend he led the Greek slaves from the gladiatorial death-pits to carve a free world, only to be crushed in the end by the Roman masters.
There was an undeservedly sparse opening night audience last night but the few hundred who were there gave the cast a richly warranted standing ovation.
To those who sniff and say “oh but it’s local”, do yourselves a favour and set your visions of the Kirov and Bolshoi versions aside. This is A Spartacus in Africa and it is beautiful.
This city has a strong tradition of youth ballet but it is many years since we last have seen an adult production of this scale and quality. Please balletomanes, go.