Death Trap

Devised and directed by Ben Duke
York Theatre Royal

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Rambert dancers in Goat (Death Trap) Credit: Camilla Greenwell
Rambert dancers in Cerberus (Death Trap) Credit: Camilla Greenwell
Rambert dancers in Goat (Death Trap) Credit: Camilla Greenwell

York Theatre Royal continues an excellent run of programming, with one of the best, most memorable shows I recall seeing on their main stage, well, ever.

Kicking off a tour here, Death Trap comprises a double bill of pieces created by Ben Duke for international dance company Rambert. One, Cerberus, is a recently devised work, while the other, Goat, is remounted with a new ensemble of performers after a 2017 première. Both deal with life and death through mythic lenses, as dancers strain against the inevitable decline of their bodies into the abyss. But with jokes! Because these are Ben Duke works, they’re also light, accessible and playful: for a contemporary dance piece about loss, death and mourning, I wasn’t expecting to laugh quite as often as I did.

There are also physical images that made me literally lean forward in my seat and open my eyes wide, hungering to take it all in. With an ensemble of 17 to work with, the Rambert company paints vivid patterns of movement, thrusting and jiving geometrically across the stage, pulsating and breathing as one mass, or whirling with apparent abandon and heartbeat rhythm. From precise to primordial to primal. Solos break out of the mass then get reconsumed, and the whole is an almost synaesthetically stimulating smorgasbord of idea after imaginative idea.

Duke’s visual knack and uses of music—disparate but somehow perfectly slotting together—are impeccable, and he uses spoken text with wit and poignancy. Somehow, his texts are self-puncturing, taking the air out of the pretensions of dance and theatre, yet simultaneously reaffirming their power.

In Cerberus, Duke’s fascination with the rules of engagement in the theatre collide with a mythical tale of a lover’s journey into the underworld. Without wanting to give away too many of the rug-pulls the piece executes, this is a gorgeous rumination on the ways we leave things behind, what we hold on to when a loved one is gone, and the impossibility of reaching out to bring them back, all dressed up in metatheatrical lightness and play. Lit beautifully by Jackie Shemesh, the design (costume by Eleanor Bull) carves up the stage in ever-changing ways, as the central character, Antonello Sangiradi, sets off in search of his lost love, Aishwarya Raut.

The key image of this piece is one of a relentless progression from stage right—birth—to stage left—death. Meanwhile, Sangiradi and his translator-companion Alex Soulliere try both to figure out what’s going on and (in vain) to hold back the tide of dancers exiting to the afterlife. A particularly flooring moment comes soundtracked by a motorik Moderat piece, with a stream of dancers processing smoothly and relentlessly across the stage, Duke’s pulsating choreography mutating hypnotically.

The second piece of the evening, Goat, takes a more Midsommar approach, with the audience invited by an incongruously slick TV presenter, Angélique Blasco, to eavesdrop on a ritual gathering seemingly placed in a village hall complete with raised stage. The oddities that ensue are 'inspired by the music and spirit of Nina Simone', with all the tunes impeccably, goosebump-inducingly performed live by a fantastic musical trio and singer Sheree DuBois.

Ensemble choreography is used to enormous effect, conjuring the force of the community against the individual, while moments of soloing evoke animalistic physicality, brute force, and some startling feats of exertion. A climactic duet brings beauty and resolution, without cliché.

From the disparate, jarring-seeming elements across both pieces comes a stunningly coherent whole, rich in meaning and imagination, presenting moment after moment of jaw-dropping physical performance, imagery and blood-pumping musicality. Be still my beating heart. "Well," Duke and co respond, "don’t forget that one day it will": one thing this show is is a memento mori. But it’s also a reminder that, until that unknowable time, there’s at least the possibility of beauty, imagination and love.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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