Theatre review: Rambert – Death Trap

Theatre Royal Bath, from 2–4 November
Words by Melissa Blease

According to choreographer Ben Duke (Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Lost Dog dance theatre), Death is a tricksy, witty, elegant oddball. Death wears couture. Death is relentlessly energetic, or wilfully feeble. Death is elegant, and sad, and funny, and beautiful. Death may be all that, and more… and all that and more is the theme of Duke/Rambert’s Death Trap: a bold, brave, eerily uplifting double bill that hit Bath for three nights only in a perfectly fitting date-juxtaposition between Halloween and Bonfire Night, when Britain’s longest-established dance company gave us both cabalistic, metaphysical clouds of grief and sparkling physical pyrotechnics in equal measure.

Rambert dancers Jonathan Wade and Angélique Blasco in Ben Duke’s Death Trap (Cerberus) – Photo by Camilla Greenwell

We begin with a public address announcement, recorded by dancer Aishwarya Raut, for those who haven’t had “the time or the expertise to access their online programmes”. Raut tells us that Cerberus will depict her journey through life; her arrival on stage marks her birth, her exit represents her death. “It’s at times like this that I wonder if I’ve chosen the right profession,” says Raut’s disembodied voice, in the first of multiple meta-twists to follow across both dances. And suddenly, there she is, in a elegant feather’n’silk’n’lace Victorian-era funeral garb, being dragged from one side of the stage to other by a rope before disappearing off into the wings again – the wings being, according to a panicky ‘director’ with a microphone, “a sort of portal to the afterlife”.

Oh, there’s plenty of tricksy humour going on here (and much more to come after the interval). But Cerberus is, all told, not funny at all. There’s turbulence and fear, tension and angst, dark smoke and bright lights, all played out against percussionist Romarna Campbell’s thumping, jarring, non-stop beats, crashes and sonic waterfalls. There are waves and waves of bodies dressed in black silk and glossy feathers, marching or dancing or careening towards oblivion, freeform or rope-tied, all playing out the stories of their own lives as they go. At one point, they’re dragged across the stage to the strains of Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa, sung by soprano Caroline Jaya-Ratnam, backed up by classical guitarist Dave Manington; simply gorgeous. 

We don’t get to see Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the entrance to Hades, but we know whose territory we’re on. An instruction is given: “if you see a white light, don’t walk towards it”. But ‘Orpheus’ (for surely, it is he?) optimistically approaches the underworld with a climber’s rope over his shoulders and a miner’s flashlight on his helmet. Is Raut dead… or is she waiting in the wings? Fade to black, in all senses of the words.

Goat takes us on a very different route around similar themes. Lighter? In one way, perhaps. But we’re still dancing on the edge of darkness. 

Inspired by Nina Simone and featuring a selection of her best-loved songs performed live on stage by jazz singer Sheree DuBois, it begins with an archly witty treatise on the concept of modern dance itself. As the stage is being set, a ‘TV presenter’ takes to the microphone to comment (mostly inappropriately) on what’s going on, how everybody might be feeling, what the motives and moves behind the convocation that’s being prepared for might mean. But those wittily self-aware, boldly self-satirising lighthearted moments are merely guiding us to the very core of Rambert tradition: physical and emotional tempos soar, plummet and dive, taking us on an exquisite physical journey through a range of complex and often conflicting emotions… with a violent rendition of Frank Sinatra’s My Way further discomfiting proceedings along the way.

Eventually, tension gives way to deep, deep emotion, hesitation is transformed by resolute conviction and trust replaces doubt, climaxing in a moving duet rich in almost trance-like physicality. Meanwhile, Jackie Shemesh’s sublime lighting designs accelerate, animate and articulate the complex chemistry of the richly detailed, powerfully poignant choreography. Goat is, quite simply, stunning.

Ethereal, funny, mysterious and weird, stimulating, shocking, precise: an evening in the company of Rambert can be described in many ways, and the dances interpreted to numerous levels of complexity. But whatever you take from the experience, Rambert, overall, celebrates life.

Rambert dancers in Ben Duke’s Death Trap

Main image: Rambert dancers in Ben Duke’s Death Trap (Goat) – Photo by Camilla Greenwell

Theatre Royal Bath