From the first opening bars of this extraordinarily powerful South African ballet, you get riveted to the score, the choreography and the story, almost exactly in that order, as the monstrous work unfolds. Spartacus of Africa is a mammoth achievement, the likes of which South African audiences don’t often get to experience.
In the authoritative hands of ancestral spirit Isenyaya, performed by David Krugel, the basic structures of the story are explained, with the potent combination of gesture, costume and body all swirled together in a comprehensive and highly readable intelligent mass. He tells you where to look and who is important in an approach arguably as iconic and convincing as that of Italian Renaissance painter Giotto, taking your eye unequivocally through the crowd to the situation at hand.
And while you might not grasp the subtleties and intricacies of the story of Spartacus, king of Thrace, which first saw light of day as a ballet in Russia in the 1950s, you are so well and closely attuned to the broad brushstrokes of a military tale of love and war, murder and victory that the interstices which fall away do not matter.
Of course, the added splendour of a live orchestra lend the spectacle that much more presence and muscle – sadly the option of piped music supporting a grand ballet is something we have become attuned to, as South African dance audiences, and the impact of real instruments being played by real people offers such a precious and timeless reflection on the ballet, it is hard to conceive of the option of reverting back to the technological option.
Spartacus of Africa does embrace a lot of colonialist concerns, and the notion of African tribes head to head with one another is presented with unapologetic directness. In watching these groups at war, you might occasionally become confused: sometimes the costumes of the opposing peoples is not completely distinct, but this too, in the bigger picture does not matter.
It is the manner in which the characters of the principles are developed and articulated that forms some of the strongest building blocks of this work, which invest individual dancers with the power to command the whole huge auditorium: For instance, the presence of Spartacus (danced by Andile Ndlovu, associated with the Washington Ballet, who boasts Ballet Theatre Afrikan roots under the guidance of Martin Schonberg) in all his vehemence and quirkiness is something conveyed through strong characterisation and unbelievable fine proportions of body in relation to other bodies, leaps beyond the restraint of logic and gesture that make him a believably victorious hero.
Veronica Paeper’s Spartacus is an achievement, not so much because there are swaths of cast members – at times, there are 90 dancers on stage concurrently – but because she offers such an intense and beautifully developed understanding of the big outlines which form the drama. And, of course, because of the live music.
Spartacus of Africa is choreographed by Veronica Paeper and David Krugel. It features the music of Aram Kachaturian and design by KMH Architects (set), Dicky Longhurst (costumes), Nicholas Michaletos (lighting). The version I watched was at the Nelson Mandela Theatre and the orchestra, under the baton of Paul Hoskins was the Johannesburg Philharmonic. On the evening I saw it, it was performed by Elzanne Crause, Michaela Griffin, Willem Houck, David Krugel Lwanele Masiza and Andile Ndlovu, in the principal roles and a company drawn from dance companies nationally, as well as two student casts for the Johannesburg and Cape Town seasons. It performs at the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town until July 12: 0214109800 or www.artscape.co.za