“Broken necks, splattered patellas, severed arteries: These are the things from which dreams are made of”, according to former professional wrestler, Road Warrior Hawk (ring name of Michael Hegstrand, 1957–2003). Said fellow former professional wrestler Cactus Jack (ring name of Mick Foley, 1965–), “if the Gods could build me a ladder to the heavens, I'd climb up the ladder and drop a big elbow on the world”. They might have been talking about old school wrestling, but on Tuesday night, their words could easily be re-moulded around the hulking form of Lucas Jervies’ world premiere of Spartacus created on The Australian Ballet in 2018.
At the 8th performance of Spartacus parallels to wrestling were shaped in place of Kirk Douglas brandishing a sword in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960s film of the same name. Spartacus was upfront, hand-to-hand, body-to-body combat, which, under the fight direction of Nigel Poulton, left no room to hide. But the fighting throughout was not there solely to entertain the makeshift arena of Melbourne’s State Theatre. Less, blood as spectacle, more, honesty in the face of omnipresent power. When not marvelling at the choreographed battles between gladiators, and, in particular, Ty King-Wall’s Crassus and poster boy, in and out of the theatre, Kevin Jackson as an exceedingly ripped Spartacus, it was the Meditations or spiritual reflections of Roman emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–180), who wrote, “the best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury”, which etched the muscle.
The very choreography within Spartacus appeared shaped around the curve of a muscle, with arms arcing the line of a bulging bicep or sharp like the cut of a deltoid. Visual references to the movement of wrestling allowed a new lexicon into the arena, with Jackson’s Spartacus anchored to and of the earth. Every palm that hammered the stage, every fist planted into the sand, every movement stretched like an arrow in a bow being drawn within the body’s casing forged a reconnection to purpose. Jackson’s Spartacus was the body as a weapon, but it was deeper than that. Jackson embodied an earthly gladiator of great moral sinew, his weighted stoicism in stark relief to a golden-fronted, power-soaked King-Wall, whose movements were of the air, upward and with self-appointed, god-like mis-leanings.
I raise my hand up above my head. I let it fall down. Connected to my body, my arm remains secure in its socket of the shoulder blade. My arm does not fall to the ground. My body is connected, "dem bones, dem bones, dem dancing bones." My body has my back, secure “doin’ the skeleton dance ….The backbone’s connected to the neck bone. Doin’ the skeleton dance.” And it was in this manner that I read Alice Topp’s new choreographic work, Little Atlas. There may have been three dancers on the stage, Leanne Stojmenov, Kevin Jackson, and Andrew Killian, but there was one body. One body caught up in the push and pull of memory.
When Stojmenov moved she was more than in tune with the movements of Jackson and Killian, they became one and the same. "The thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone" and Stojmenov was connected to Jackson, as she fell she was safe in the knowledge that she wouldn’t hit the floor. “The hip bone’s connected to the backbone” and Killian was a continuation of Stojmenov, a different facet of a whole. To me, I interpreted the movements as the struggle within the one body, as memories are reordered and erased by time, and the fluidity of joints begins to stiffen. The thigh bone is connected to the hip bone, but as we all know the body can’t dance forever, not quite. Best to shake it, morph it, steel fuse it like Patti Smith. Or Shakira. "My hips don’t lie [as Topp explains]…. I’ve only got a few more years of dancing left in this old bod so I would absolutely love to have a future in choreography.” And from Little Atlas a future in choreography is undoubtedly what she has.
At the coordinates 78°29’121 N 014°17’986 E, composer Ludovico Einaudi (for and with Greenpeace) performed 'legy for the Arctic', a call from the icebergs, a response on the keys, off the coast of Svalbard, Norway. And at latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates for Melbourne’s State Theatre, in similar vein tap, Einaudi’s 'Fly' and 'Experience' enabled the heart to soar. As revealed in Topp’s choreographic note, by way of two greats, Joan Didion and Patti Smith, this was about our own stored memories and “our attachment to the way these things made us feel” Fleeting time, we feel it in our bones. Transformation, while inevitable, is loss. But as Patti Smith (in her 2015 kaleidoscopic memory dance, M Train) best describes: “the transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.”
Murphy’s Nutcracker loops freely from summertime in late 1950s Australia back to snow-cloaked Imperial Russia before launching towards the 1917 Russian Revolution, in the way that memory does, and the musical score, in turn, can be read. Clara’s memory maps her life as a star of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes before touring with Colonel de Basil to the homelands of previous divertissements: Spain, Egypt, China, and, naturally, the addition of Melbourne. Clara’s final performance is also the birth of a company, the newly formed Borovansky Ballet. To sweep such rich terrain in an evening, Clara’s story is told through three different performers, from Child Clara (Jessica Stratton-Smith) to Young Clara, performed by Leanne Stojmenov (on opening night) and Dimity Azoury (on Tuesday night), and Ai-Gul Gaisina and Chrissa Keramidas (on opening and Tuesday nights respectively) as Clara the Elder. Stojmenov not only taps into but epitomises fluid-shifting remembrance and loss, and ultimately resilience with such tactile conviction, rendering her spine elastic yet unbreakable in every intimate lift with Kevin Jackson as her Soldier/Lover. Great love never dims, it merely changes shape, and their connection and faith in each other feels all the deeper for beginning at the end.
From Hills Hoist to the Argus newspaper calls, the Australian gumtree angle works because it is presented as a truth. It is not (self-) consciously laid on thick; it is merely there. A mirror. This is us. A part of our dance history. These are scenes we recognise. Clara the Elder’s apartment is one we’ve all sat in, either in real life, or in a story where perhaps we wished we had a relative who had spent their formative years on the stage. As Clara the Elder, both Gaisina and Keramidas appeared to shine from inside out. To paraphrase Murphy, just as you hear Tchaikovsky poured his heart into the score, the same can be said of the light-footed recollections of Gaisina and Keramidas as Ballet Russes émigrés. Where past is in contrast to present, and Russian society is shown in contrast to a life of exile in Australia, the time spent in Act I with Clara and her émigré friends (Frank Leo, Colin Peasley OAM, Terese Power et al.) is what enables Nutcracker to hit you in the guts when the curtain closes. The body as it gets older cannot do what it might earlier have done with ease. This is the cruelty of age. And this is strength, beauty, and the importance of connections forged with others. If ever there was a call to follow your dreams, this celebration of a lived experience being that which makes us richer is it. It is precisely the amount of time spent in her apartment that is why, I believe, we feel a lump in our throat or a tear on our cheek when Clara dies. We cannot know what has been lost without knowing what is. Nostalgia colours the past, but it also informs the present and alters the future. "Time does not help us make sense of our otherwise jumbled lives; our jumbled lives help us make sense of time."
Recently landed: No rest for the wilis, Gracia's written response for Fjord Review
In light of Eastoe’s announcement to retire now forever netted to Giselle’s spectral maidens, I like to think I saw an extra flicker of considered clemency in Hendricks’ beguiling and truly imposing Queen, as Eastoe entreated her to spare Jackson. It was present in Jackson’s aching tenderness, a twice-laced awareness of something wonderful coming to a close. This recognition was poured into and made a part of the ghostly Wilis/corps as they were forced with backs turned to listen but not see Eastoe and Jackson’s pleading duet that felt as if it had always been, and hoped would always continue to be. It was present in former Principal Artist, and one of the great Giselle’s, Bolte’s heartfelt consoling of Giselle/Eastoe as she unwove her hair, in "a lovely full circle". And it was there as Juliet Burnett, as one of Giselle’s Friends, clasped her hands to her face in show of shared grief during the famous mad scene.
Such beguilement by moonlight! Keep the dawn at bay! Under a fine gossamer veil, in bid to savor the ‘ballet-fantastique’, it is there that I choose to stay.