Choreographer Ben Duke: ‘Surrounded by violence, I wanted to explore who we’re angry with’
Ben Duke is a true original. Having trained as an actor and dancer he discovered his calling lay both outside those disciplines and somewhere between them. A gentle maverick with a sharp mind and a magpie imagination, he formed his company Lost Dog in 2004 with fellow dancer Raquel Meseguer. The aim was to create work that is both theatre and dance, employing text, live music and movement.
The original title for the company was Mongrel but it was considered “a little too negative”. Thus, it was baptised with the more positive Lost Dog. It was, and to a certain extent still is, a modest enterprise.
“There are only two people on the payroll,” he says, when we meet in a studio in the Rambert Dance building in London.
Whenever he makes a piece he brings in outsiders, often frequent collaborators, to realise his visions. These often start vaguely until he shapes them into the powerful performance pieces. Anyone who has seen his one-man show Paradise Lost (Lies Unopened Beside Me) will attest to the fact that Duke punches well above his weight.
It was one of the best solo shows of the year and won him the National Dance Critics’ Award for outstanding male performance in 2016.
His gentle demeanour conceals an honesty that might be considered brutal. He is fearless in peeling away layers of his own psyche and encourages others to do the same.
Duke is happy to step out of his comfort zone. His current association with Rambert is a case in point. Although he has choreographed and made work for companies other than his own (including Scottish Dance Theatre and Dance Umbrella) he rarely steps inside a legitimate dance company.
The piece he is making with Rambert is entitled Goat. What’s all that about? “Goat equals scapegoat,” he says. “The literal scapegoat being the animal to which you attach the sins of the city and drive out.”
Considering he bases himself in rural Sussex it sounds very metropolitan – maybe the city in which we are currently talking. It is, he says, as much about London as it is any major city. And the source material was (still is) happening around him.
“The Westminster Bridge attack happened just before we started and the Grenfell Tower fire happened during rehearsals. And we were surrounded by violence. I wanted to explore the feeling of ‘who are we angry with?’. It is hard to pinpoint.”
Unusually for Duke, the original idea came from a piece of music or rather, a performance, by Nina Simone at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival when she sang Feelings.
“I’d seen it on YouTube and I thought it would be great if you could create a piece that somehow held this range of emotions. That sense of not quite being comfortable but fascinated by a feeling that you should not be watching this.”
During the early stages of the process Duke found himself repositioning the piece – after the Borough Market terror attack, which ‘started a conversation’ about how everyone involved felt about London. “Colliding with the event set it off on a different course,” he says.
Evidently, Duke is as much an assembler as a creator. He admits that on his first day of rehearsals he likes “to have as little in place as possible”.
While this may suggest extraordinary confidence that something will emerge from the notions rattling around in his head and the input from his performers, it also necessitates an extraordinary degree of trust in him; particularly as he is asking his fellow creatives to expose their own fears, hopes, dreams and expectations in the process.
“That was challenging,” he says. “They would agree with that. The idea of not leaving your personal stuff outside the studio but bringing it in, it’s difficult. They were up for it but they hadn’t done much of it before. We ended up in quite deep water and it was harder to navigate. There were a lot of questions about why we were doing this. You don’t want to see people, especially friends, in distress. You are asking people to trust you when they don’t know you.”
If it’s so hard to accomplish, why doesn’t he make life easier for himself and his dancers? “I want to see dance without masks,” he says. “With an honesty. It is a reaction to what I feel about a lot of dance. Too often they can hide themselves behind technique and virtuosity. It’s like: ‘If I move fast enough you won’t see me.’ ”
Q&A: Ben Duke
What was your first non-theatre job? An usher at Chichester Festival Theatre.
What was your first professional theatre job? A play about Savonarola at the New End Theatre in Hampstead. I played one of the sidekick monks. One night I missed a scene because I forgot to come on.
What’s your next job? Goat for Rambert Dance.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Kurt Vonnegut.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Find ways of doing a workshop outside of the audition environment. Then decide if you really want to work with that choreographer.
If you hadn’t been a dancer/choreographer, what would you have been? I’d probably be trying to imitate Kurt Vonnegut as a writer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Not really. I try to stay on stage for as long as possible before the house comes in.
Duke himself is nothing if not visible on stage. In person, he is quietly attractive, bearded and, when we meet, dressed in anonymous grey hoodie and jeans.
On stage he is like a lightning rod, a conduit for raw emotions that can shift from the incendiary to the heart-breaking in the shuffle of a footstep. He is also blessed with instinctive comic timing. He combines a rejection of the cerebral and the arid with an intuitive -understanding of the storyteller.
His fascination with circus performers led to works such as It Needs Horses, about a down-at-heel circus duo, and a piece for Barely Methodical Circus Troupe called Kin. There is an element of danger about circus that clearly appeals to him.
“I love that the circus does that. There were bits of the Kin rehearsal that I couldn’t watch. Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On had the same feeling. After a minute no one comes on. I feel awakened by that. That’s what live stuff has – that sense of danger or unsettling you in a good way.”
Not that he has rejected literary sources entirely. Aside from Paradise Lost, he made a piece with Lost Dog’s co-founder Meseguer called Like Rabbits based on a relatively obscure short story by Virginia Woolf, Lappin and Lapinova. But it was the Milton poem that shifted his position.
“It was a bit of a turning point for me. I did an English literature degree and then drama school and had a kind of rejection of all the cerebral – words and literary things.
“But reading and books, stories and fragments of stories, are part of my life. I begin with the words – unlike other choreographers, who begin with images or movement.”
Surprisingly, there was no script for Paradise Lost in spite of the fact that he spouts words and inhabits characters from God to Lucifer to himself throughout. “I didn’t write anything down. I kept it all in my head to keep the freshness,” he says.
Duke had a successful residency with Paradise Lost at the Theatre de Ville. “The fees are much better in France. A production pays for itself,” he says. “We do lots of touring in the UK but in this country you need grants because you can’t get it to pay for itself.”
He talks about the distinction between working with actors and dancers. “I love working with dancers because they are open to everything. They don’t question it and are willing to try anything. Actors will ask questions first and want to know why you are asking them to do something before trying it.”
It emerges during our conversation that, buried somewhere in his CV, he once worked with the acclaimed Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter. “Well, I didn’t actually dance for him,” he says cautiously. “But I was in Political Mother. I played the Dictator for a while. So all I had to do was shout and scream from time to time.”
Political Mother was declared an “audio-visual marvel” in 2010 after its premiere, but Duke found that not everyone appreciated it, or his performance.
“I had a heckler,” he says. “We were performing in Wolfsburg in Germany when someone shouted, ‘No one told you life is beautiful’ before storming out.”
But then Duke may be getting used to unusual responses to his performances from his position somewhere in the hinterland between dance and theatre.
CV: Ben Duke
Born: 1975, Chichester
Training: Newcastle University; Guildford School of Acting; London Contemporary Dance School
Landmark productions: Pave Up Paradise, Phoenix Dance Theatre (2004), Hungry Ghosts, the Place, London, and tour (2007), It Needs Horses, the Place, London (2011), Lappin and Lapinova, the Place, London (2014), Paradise Lost (Lies Unopened Beside Me), Battersea Arts Centre, Edinburgh Fringe, Theatre de Ville (2015)
Awards: First Prize, Burgos International Choreography Competition (2004), The Place Prize for dance (2011), National Dance Award for outstanding male performer (2016)
Goat premieres at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, on October 26 before touring, including Sadler’s Wells from November 21-25