Ben Duke: “Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)”

“All consciousness in Milton is heroic, because it is somehow his own, whether Satanic or human, whether fallen or unfallen. (…) Milton’s particular greatness is his transformation of his own profound passions, his hopes for the human, into an art absolutely personal and yet also near-universal.”

– Harold Bloom

“ Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ethereal sky With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire.”

– John Milton, Paradise Lost

(Are you not tired sometimes of an art form that has some sort of maniacal need to entertain you or impress you, like some sort of needy circus child? Are you not tired of dance that thinks you are stupid, and therefore purports to do all the work for you on stage: lights, movement, athleticism, bravado, sweat, all trying to make you forget somehow that you are in a theatre, and trick you into thinking that you are watching some sort of Diaghilevian mirage? Do you ever feel mildly annoyed, insulted, even, by this tendency? Is anyone else fed up with the widely held belief that dance’s sole purpose is here to provide us with escapism?)

Recently in making dance work I’ve been questioning the reasons as to why I express myself through dance in the first place (as opposed to using the written form, or drama, or music for instance.) What is the point I’m trying to make? Is dance the most appropriate medium to express this point, and if I use dance, will anyone care? Am I using dance because it’s what I know, or am I doing it out of genuine necessity for the purposes of what it is I’m trying to convey, in quest of some sort of meaning that dance is truly and uniquely equipped to provide?1

The question as to the relevance of dance in the articulation of an artistic idea is a persistent one to me because of how elusive and slippery it is. And it’s an interesting one too, because despite the trappings, think how radical dance really is: after all, what could be more bizarre today than a gathering of people, away from our precious shiny black screens, watching other people express themselves through their bodies in non-pixellated live performance?

Simon Stephens below on theatre as radical [at 3’16]:

So to cut this short and to get to some sort of point, I sometimes wonder whether I’m taken to theatre in general and to dance in particular precisely because no one cares. Is it possible there’s something that I find exciting about dance precisely because it takes place on the outer fringes of art and of this world? I can’t say I’m any closer to solving this problem. On good days, I’m taken by the vibrancy of dance’s potential, by an excitement I know I can only ever experience through dance. On bad days, I find it hard to get out of bed.

— [End of digressive, self-important prolegomenon] —

In “Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)”2, Ben Duke indirectly tackles these tensions between movement and text, and would like to propose an alternative solution: let’s put all of that crap to one side; my name’s Ben and I’d like to tell you about a show I’m thinking about making.

The premise is that Ben Duke is to tell us over the course of an evening about a show he’d like to make about Milton’s Pradise Lost, with a comedic lack of production values.

Besides the inherent comedy of the whole show, what Duke proposes is a very clever solution to the whole problem 3 and one that you’d be hard-pressed to surpass. This postmodernist stance isn’t new of course, and has almost been elevated to an element of style in the current contemporary dance scene in Europe.

The master of deconstructionist/postmodern dance, William Forsythe – Kammer/Kammer :

Much of the content of Paradise Lost connects to Duke’s real life: Duke talks about his children, making dance work, meeting his partner. Indeed, in the same way the Tempest is a metaphor for theatre, Paradise Lost is a metaphor for the difficulties of artistic creation in the 21st century (dance creation specifically). Duke plays God, and Lucifer, and a version of himself, and like Prospero in the Tempest (only here, before the work even starts), Duke surrenders his magical powers. As he’d done before in “It needs horses” (along with Raquel Messeger), Duke is interested in bringing your attention to the potential shoddiness of the stage, and getting a laugh out of it. 4 This already elevates the work out of some sort of deferential treatment of the greatness of Milton, (although it might be argued that cool ignorance is another trope of contemporary pop culture —check out any recent Hollywood actor interview on Youtube and you will notice that intellectual involvement or enthusiasm in the pop arena spells death. The reason this doesn’t apply here is that Duke diverts diverts our attention from Milton to address something equally profound – the notion of making performance art whilst dealing with the day-to-day difficulties of raising a family), and would be almost reason enough to admire it.

What Paradise Lost does especially well, however, is that, once the old proscenium arch conventions are clearly thrown out of the window 5, it actually lures you back into that theatrical experience without you even noticing, hence the real cleverness in Paradise Lost is in its leading you, imperceptibly, into suspending the very disbelief the work set out to make you drop in its opening five minutes. In doing so, Duke tricks you into thinking this is really him speaking on stage (which on one level it is), and in doing so, has made you drop your guard, and made you believe you are watching something devoid of any artifice.

In short, the apparent postmodernist device of appearing as himself on stage (and thereby bringing your attention to the fact that you’re watching a show, as opposed to attempting to immerse you in it) doesn’t prevent Duke from resuscitating the exact mises-en-scenes he implicitly promised he’d throw out of the window at the beginning of the show; on the contrary: it actually aids him in doing so. Talking about real facts of his life doesn’t necessarily make them “real” 6. And from then on, the smallest acts become moments of pure theatre. Balancing himself on a chair to Debussy’s Clair de Lune, all of a sudden we see Lucifer falling from heaven. Or with paper cutouts of angels falling from the ceiling and Duke ranting and shouting across the stage, a raging battle of biblical proportions appears in our imagination’s eye.

And the thing is: there’s genuine beauty in these moments, pure moments of movement and voice stripped away of the pomp. And all of a sudden great moments of theatre appear, of the sort that remind you why you used to enjoy theatre7 in the first place. Because what’s happened, see, is that he’s tricked you into thinking he won’t be creating any theatre tonight, but theatre is already taking place before your eyes: you may not be marvelling at some artificial beauty of Lucifer falling from the heavens, but what is very much drawing you in and moving you (and in a very truthful way) is the spectacle of watching Ben Duke playing himself playing Lucifer falling into a lake of fire… and it takes no small degree of skill both as a performer and as a choreographer to pull off this shift.

In a nutshell, this is mas o menos what Duke achieves in Paradise Lost, in a very entertaining way. In short, it manages to play with the usual postmodern tropes whilst managing to transcend them, in a way that created theatrical moments with a pulse. Duke’s reading of such a daunting classic succeeds in being truly personal and generous, and is the sort of work that will inspire you, whether or not you give a damn about dance (which is quite an achievement.)8 I believe the other performance, tonight, is already sold out, but watch out for future performances—this is a work that spells artistic maturity and integrity, and we need this sort of stuff now more than ever.

  1. If in any doubt about the urgency of the above questions, I suggest you take a quick detour (emphasis on “quick” – it’s not a particularly pleasant place) through any broadsheet website’s comments sections in dance news, where you will be met by:
    a. Obtuse comments about dance’s right to exist as an art form
    b. Obtuse comments about art’s right to exist
    c. Obtuse comments about artists right to make a living
    d. Obtuse comments not remotely connected in any way to the topic discussed in the article
    e. Obtuse and hurtful comments against the choreographer about whom the article was written
    f. Tumbleweeds
    g. Gushing comments about exquisite ports de bras and petit allegros
    (g. Relates especially to the ballet world, and for some reason I can’t help picturing most of the online ballet audience (perhaps wrongly—no question I’m biased) as an angry mob of ageing and bored but mostly harmless female divorcees. I once saw a show by ABT, probably set to Bach or Mozart, and before I could reach for the Xanax, this incredibly friendly middle-aged woman who happened to be a surgeon told me tearfully that she felt she had wasted her entire life because she should have been a dancer, such was the elation stirred in her by the explosion of lycra, sweat and stage fright that was being played out a couple of miles below us on the main stage.
  2. He already had me at the title
  3. i.e.,if our premise is to explore a subject with some level of depth, how do we tackle the fact that dance is a priori so ill-equipped to do so?
  4. One of the thing Duke likes to bring out of the stage is its inherent cheapness. Look at this crappy performer. He’s not prepared his text! Look at the crappy props! …You get the point.
  5. a. by the title, b. by Duke casually strolling onto the stage, as well as other small details like house lights staying up for the first 15 min, and so on
  6. bearing in mind of course that real ≠ true, as anyone who’s ever watched The Only Way is Essex or the X factor or any similar entries in the canon of TV trashiness can easily attest. What I’m saying and which all know so well that’s almost (in fact is, perhaps) cliché, is that fiction can at times be closer to the truth than fact
  7. (/dance)
  8. (In other words, it’s a reading that Duke has achieved in making very much his own, incidentally avoiding this audience member the soporific trauma of having to sit though yet another “dance adaption of/response to [insert famous author here]”—for that alone I’m grateful.)

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