Rambert: Death Trap

Sadler’s Wells, London
November 22, 2023

Death Trap is a double-bill of works by Ben Duke that deal with life and death. But while loss and mourning are never that far away, that it’s Duke means that there’s also more than a touch of dark humour.

Cerberus takes its title from the vicious multi-headed dog that guarded the gates to Hades and kept the living from entering the world of the dead, and the dead from leaving. It’s a bittersweet musing on myth and mortality, and on what is left behind when someone passes. With a nod to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, it’s about wanting to bring them back but the impossibility of doing so.

Heavily text-oriented, Duke’s words largely speak louder than the choreography. The speech is imbued with humour and irony, occasionally poignancy too, but while the non-dance regular might find the text offers a way into the art form, others may well find it too much. There is also the issue that humorous one-liners are rarely as funny second time around. There are danced scenes but Cerberus is very much at the theatre end of the dance-theatre spectrum.

Rambert dancers in Ben Duke’s Cerberus
Photo Camilla Greenwell

It opens with Aishwarya Raut, in elegant Victorian-era funerial black silk and lace (costumes by Eleanor Bull), making her way across the stage, lassoed by a thick length of rope. When she disappears in the wings stage left, Antonello Sangiradi gives a eulogy, suggesting that she has entered the underworld.

Thereafter, the scene is punctuated by the ensemble relentlessly progressing from stage right (more lace and silk), representing birth, to stage left, death, as if on some never-ending conveyor belt. Sangiradi and his translator Alex Soulliere meanwhile try to work out what is happening and stop the inevitable line of people slow marching towards the afterlife. While soloists briefly break out, they are but effectively last breaths before being drawn back into the ensemble and the inevitable. Cerberus is never actually seen but live sin the wings.

Towards the end, Sangiradi, our ‘Orpheus,’ sets off in search of his lost love armed with no more than a climber’s rope over his shoulders and a miner’s helmet with flashlight. He can’t say he wasn’t warned never to look back.

Jonathan Wade and Angélique Blasco in Ben Duke’s Cerberus
Photo Camilla Greenwell

Inspired by the music and spirit of Nina Simone, Goat has the audience eavesdropping on a community at a village-hall style location, where they are gathering for a ritual. A sort of Rite of Spring meets The Red Shoes, it is by some way the more disturbing of the two pieces, not least by the way the audience are made voyeurs to events.

That feeling is helped along by intrusive television presenter Angélique Blasco, who takes to the microphone to explain and comment on what’s going on, how everybody might be feeling, and such like. We’ve all seen her like. She thinks she’s slick. In fact, she’s just intensely irritating as she asks bland, dumb questions to which we already know the answers, before repeating those responses.

Throughout, Duke makes brilliant use of Nina Simone’s music, sung by the marvellously expressive Sheree DuBois (hidden far too much) accompanied by live band of Caroline Jaya-Ratnam (piano), Romarna Campbell (drums) and Dave Manington (bass).

Jonathan Wade (front) and ensemble in Goat by Ben Duke
Photo Camilla Greenwell

Although text is again to the fore, especially in the early stages, dance plays an increasingly important role. Duke’s ensemble choreography emphasises the power of the community over the individual with moments of great animalistic physicality and fervour and force. It’s very easy to draw parallels with the power of the virtual community and the frenzy that can be whipped up on social media.

The ritual, we learn, takes the form of a sacrifice. Apparently, they used to use a goat (the piece also has roots in a rural Sussex event), but after animal rights activists complained, they now use a human. Eventually, the humour gives way to deep emotion.

Having been picked out by Musa Motha, The Chosen One, Jonathan Wade enters the circle of everyday-dressed but menacing dancers. He’s the scapegoat for the ills of humanity, recited aloud and stuck to him with Post-it notes. His fate? To dance himself to death.

After he’s dead, and a speech, Goat climaxes with a deeply physical duet for Wade and Dylan Tedaldi, backed by DuBois singing Simone’s ‘Feelings.’ It is quite beautiful. As they fold and move around each other, lift and carry each other, they seem almost in a trance.

Death Trap is a somewhat mysterious, weird evening. Dark but also humorous. Certainly complex. Often more theatre than dance. And, while assuredly a show with death at its core, perhaps, in its own way, even more a show about life.

Death Trap is at Sadler’s Wells to November 25, 2023; then continues on tour to April, 2024