It all begins, and ends, with rabbits. A rabbit on screen is wondering why the human on stage is carrying the guilt of earlier generations. They’re the cute bit, and bring a welcome touch of fluffy, nose-snuffling humour.
In TrapTown, the legendary Belgian director and choreographer Wim Vandekeybus gives us a multi-media smorgasbord: dance, film, spoken word, and an original musical score (by Trixie Whitley and Phoenician Drive). There’s a wonderful maze-like set of slate-y metallic partitions, designed by architect duo Gijs Van Vaerenbergh. Vandekeybus works with the universal appeal of myth by creating a riveting landscape in which his dancers move: twitching and wrangling their bodies, minds and souls through a labyrinthine city that I certainly wouldn’t want to go anywhere near.
Within this old/new world citadel there’s a long-running conflict – but there are intimations of change, and sparks of freedom are flickering. The protagonist, the son of the bead-wearing, hair-plaited mayor of TrapTown, reminds me of Tilda Swinton’s version of a boy in Orlando. He wants to bring justice and fairness to the lives of the town’s inhabitants. TrapTown is a place of crowded passages and corners, rank and seething with no colour and little privacy, even when going to the toilet. Overshadowing, or we could say undershadowing everything is the threatening, impending catastrophe of living one’s days in a society on the brink of collapse. The ‘sink hole’ threatens, the mystifying abyss from under, from the unknown, against which there is no defence…
I have always admired and been excited by the work of Wim Vandekeybus. I would cite his 1999 dance film In Spite of Wishing and Wanting as one of my strongest memories of powerful Dance for Camera work. He is one of a group of choreographers, alongside Jan Fabré, Alain Platel and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who spearheaded the Flemish New Wave in contemporary dance in the 1980s. In the mid-1980s, Vanderkeybus performed in Jan Fabré’s groundbreaking The Power of Theatrical Madness, and soon after, he founded his own company, Ultima Vez. His first show, What the Body Does Not Remember, earned him international success. Vandekeybus strives for the form to be different in every show he makes, and so in TrapTown, he works with the idea of a classical mythological play, mixed with a vision of a future dystopian society, in a kind of graphic novel told through live performance and film.
The first twenty minutes had me captivated, as you’d expect from an Ultima Vez show – exceptional dancers, movement that is both robust and liquid. In the film, projected at the rear of the stage, characters are speaking out of the screen to the live characters on-stage. The set in the film is amazing. I loved the music, the songs and the visual imagery, which is beautifully, technically and skilfully executed – such as the moment when the bird flying on screen touches the corpse of the boy lying in real life below the screen. Some scenes I particularly enjoyed, such as the corpses dancing, rigour-mortice-ing about, bodies contracting in their last leaps and throws. There was ample walking off stage into screen, and off screen onto the stage, Forkbeard Fantasy style, creating sections where the dancers and the film worked together wonderfully.
But there were also many lengthy passages of un-engaging nonsense, such as a scene where the audience are asked to ‘show their balls’. This involves some awkward audience participation where footballs are passed from the audience on to the stage. After the initial visual and aural ‘wow’, TrapTown became disappointingly tedious. There is a lot of plaited hair and earnestness. The dancers act well enough, have good clear voices, but much of the text is clunky, and proclamations such as ‘There is no growth in comfort, and no comfort in growth’ just took the narrative and direction spiralling up its own backside.
Finally, a hole appears, nature takes all and wins, whilst the rabbits snuffle around and look on…
I wanted to be absorbed, taken into this world, yet found myself sitting back, watching highly skilful and proficient work quite coldly. Ultimately, I didn’t care about the characters, or the story. It all slipped away into its own sink hole of magnificent twaddle – and at 1 hour 45 minutes without an interval, and with no re-admission if you leave the auditorium, it just goes on, and on, and on. There were numerous walk-outs (and no doubt a number of people sitting with their legs crossed as even a toilet break was not permitted).
Technically brilliant, and all the usual Vandekeybus/Ultima Vez idioms were there: tension, conflict, physical risks and impulses, body versus mind, intuition, passion. But in TrapTown it is somehow not enough.
Featured image (top): TrapTown, photo by Danny Willems