Rambert review – Ben Duke’s new work is both funny and profound

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Sadler’s Wells was sparsely populated for the London opening of Rambert’s programme of three short works. Perhaps it’s a sign of how hard it is to get audiences back to live dance. Perhaps it reveals Rambert’s difficulties in remaking its mark as the UK’s foremost contemporary dance company under a new director, Benoit Swan Pouffer, who took charge at the end of 2018. Or maybe its normal audience were watching Rangers lose the Europa League final.

Whatever the reason, those who stayed away missed a treat. Rambert’s dancers are always sensational. Here they were dancing works that stretched and showcased their talent.

Ben Duke’s new piece, Cerberus, was the centrepiece and the highlight, revealing all the originality that Duke has displayed in creations for his own company, Lost Dog, combining his wit and invention with some sumptuous steps. (Pippa Duke and Winifred Burnet-Smith are credited as assistant choreographers.)

It begins with a fake public address announcement, for all the people who haven’t had “the time or the expertise” to access their online programmes. This is a show that will depict a journey through life; the dancer’s arrival on stage will mark her birth, her exit her death. “It’s at times like this that I wonder if I’ve chosen the right profession,” says the disembodied voice.

What we see is Aishwarya Raut in feathers and elaborate black dress pulled by a rope, skittering from one side of the stage to the other, as onstage percussionist Romarna Campbell plays. Arms waving, frail legs struggling to resist the rope’s momentum, Raut looks like an exotic bird as she vanishes into the wings. A panicked director (Antonello Sangirardi) appears; stage left, he says in voluble, translated Italian, has become “a sort of portal to the afterlife”.

Thereafter, he struggles to stop people being sucked into oblivion until finally, like Orpheus, he walks off to save them. Duke sets wave after wave of dancers across the space in horizontal lines and vividly imagined variations on the theme. Sometimes they move like mad things, with different walks and little twitches of the shoulders; sometimes they slouch or are concealed by smoke. At one point, a lifeless body is passed from hand to hand.

It’s mysterious, beautiful and perfectly judged, from Jackie Shemesh’s subtle lighting to Eleanor Bull’s sophisticated, funereal costumes to music that mixes live singing and guitar with recording to heart-stopping effect. Like all Duke’s best work, it is incredibly funny and yet profound; there’s a melancholy pall hanging over the whole thing at the inevitability of ultimate oblivion.

This fine piece is bookended by two good ones. Imre and Marne van Opstal’s Eye Candy, which opens the programme, is a dark, clever work about body image that was originally premiered online but looks more impressive live. Alonzo King’s Following the Subtle Current Upstream concludes the evening, ending on a note of muscular, percussive joy.

It’s a real bonus to see King’s work; he is huge in the US but rarely spotted here, and the elegance and sophistication of his choreography, full of sharp jumps and confidently shifting patterns, makes you long to see more. The dancers are, throughout, superb.

  • Rambert’s tour continues until 1 June

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