A Spartacus of Africa, presented by the South African National Dance Trust, is a retelling of the story of the legendary Roman gladiator for an African audience. The renowned Veronica Paeper, who choreographed the original Spartacus for the CAPAB company in 1984, has reworked her choreography to infuse elements of African and contemporary dance into this fresh African adaption.
The show boasts a striking set design by KMH Architects, beautiful costumes by Dicky Longhurst, and subtle lighting by Nicholas Michaletos. Together with the sumptuous sound of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paul Hoskins, the result is a lavish production, giving Spartacus the potential to be something truly epic.
Unfortunately not all aspects live up to this potential. The large supporting cast, while creating great energy and atmosphere, occasionally lack clarity of movement, causing the stage to look untidy and overcrowded, distracting the eye from the otherwise fantastic dancing by the professional and student cast alike. Having said that, there are some members of the supporting cast who stand out for their presence and commitment: Rachel Abrahams shines and William Constable generates such magnetism that even when intentionally trying not to watch him, my eyes kept being drawn back.
All the male dancers perform with a strength and volatile masculine energy that tangibly radiates out of every muscle, particularly during the fighting scenes, making them exceptionally exciting to watch. The barely-there loin-cloth costumes don’t hurt either! The epitome of all this is found in Amari/Spartacus himself, performed by Washington-based dancer Brooklyn Mack (with South African Andile Ndlovu sharing the role). If for no other reason, the show is worth watching just to see Mack. His technique is such that when he turns you feel 100% secure that he won’t fall, when he lands a jump he does so with gossamer lightness, and his elevation is awe-inspiring. In short, he exhibits a precision and grace perfectly combined with a raw masculine virility and presence.
Mack is partnered by the beautiful Elzanne Crause as Fayola, who, when we finally get to see her dance, does so with a captivating vulnerability yet strength. The final duet between Mack and Crause is the highlight of A Spartacus of Africa both choreographically and emotionally, and it was the first time I really bought into what the characters were feeling on stage. It is a shame though, that this only happens at the end. Even though the dancing is entertaining throughout, the show loses punch by failing to draw the audience into the authenticity of the characters at an early stage.
Particularly disappointing is Kristin Wilson whose amazing physique and natural allure are perfectly suited to the character of Nadira. Hopefully this was just the one performance, but as she sauntered, smoky-eyed, onto the stage, I expected something great, yet as soon as she started dancing she lost her sass. After spinning out of control a few times, she finally found her balance and performed technically well but never exuding the sensuality in her movement of which I am sure she is capable.
A Spartacus of Africa is a high energy show with great production value, exciting dancing and the undoubted potential to capture the audience in an emotional journey. I hope the South African National Dance Trust is able to build on what they have done with A Spartacus of Africa and continue to create works and opportunities for the dancers and dance lovers of South Africa.
A Spartacus of Africa runs at Artscape Theatre Centre until 12 July 2015