Ivan Michael Blackstock
Sadler’s Wells x 180 Studios co-production with The Factory and ALTRUVIOLET
180 Studios, The Strand
Images of male vulnerability and violence dominate the intensely physical dance performance of Ivan Michael Blackstock’s Traplord. Its characters try to hide their vulnerability, by adopting stereotypes of toughness. And to emphasise how that is no more than a pose, these black male performers often don the caricatured make-up of blackface that was constructed by oppression.
Everything takes place in semi-darkness. Sometimes, strips of violet and yellow lighting on the left of the stage lift that darkness slightly for those who speak from that spot, though the sombre mood remains the same. Occasionally, one of the dancers heavily clad in black is caught in a searchlight, like a hunted man, a prisoner standing on the edges of a prison camp.
These dancers always adopt male poses, their dance movements are at times impressively familiar from the dance floor of clubs, yet somehow they carry a sense of rage, a sense of threat, as bodies are twisted awkwardly, as fingers are pointed like a gun in the direction of others.
The ensemble work of these dancers is outstanding as they move from one stylised dance scene to what looks like a highly choreographed dance version of a chaotic, concentrated fight.
The sinister figure in a pig's head appears several times. In what seems like a school, he asks black lads what they want to be when they are older. “A policeman” answers one, “a firefighter” replies another.
But the older lads are shown stripped to the waist, grovelling in white powder at the feet of the pig as drugs lord. Along the row where I sat, a woman quietly sobbed.
Perhaps to illustrate the futility of an imagined male escape in video games, we see a video of a character running across a bleak landscape against a sky of flames and the huge, menacing figure of a pig-man.
There is something of the nightmare about much of this show. The dancer wearing the head of a rabbit with floppy ears evokes that terrible dream of being unable to escape as he anxiously slow-motions efforts at walking away from danger without ever getting anywhere.
There is always the imminence of threat. One dancer holding a long sharp sword admits, “I’m tooled up with fear.” The cause of all these feelings of terror isn't clear, but we hear that “the shadow of an absent father conjures up a larger figure,” and that, as a consequence, “we must play the role bigger.”
In the semi-darkness, a mirror gives a dancer (Chantelle Dawe) an idea of what that role looks like as they twist, extend their limbs painfully in gestures of masculine physicality, never entirely happy about what they see, their body heavily clothed in black perhaps suggesting to many in the audience the male body until, with a sweater thrown aside, assumptions about gender are disrupted.
If the terror of the dream ends with the possible death of a dancer, what follows in the form of multiple figures with white wings can hardly be reassuring.
The journey this performance takes is fragmentary and never clearly identifies the cause of male vulnerability or its violence, but it is, all the same, an impressive dance-led evocation of how distressing and destructive are many of the heightened, masculine solutions to the anxieties that haunt men in this society.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna