Caro Meets Dance & Physical Interview

Ben Duke: To Start With

By | Published on Monday 24 October 2022

Coming up this week at Sadler’s Wells is the world premiere of ‘To Start With’, an evening of works by John-William Watson, Magnus Westwell, Olive Hardy and Vidya Patel.

These four emerging artists form the second cohort of the venue’s Young Associates scheme, which is a programme for talented dance artists aged 18-24 and 18-30 for d/Deaf and disabled choreographers.

For ‘To Start With’, the Young Associates have been working under the artistic guidance of experienced creative Ben Duke, Artistic Director of acclaimed dance theatre company Lost Dog.

I spoke to him, to find out more about what to expect from the show, and a bit about Ben himself. 

CM: Can we begin by talking about the Young Associates programme? How does it help young choreographers grow as artists? 
BD: The programme gives choreographers a rare opportunity to present work on both the small and the large stages at Sadlers Wells.

Those are the headline parts of the programme but it is the support in between that I think really allows these artists to develop their choreographic voice. There is an amazing team that runs the programme and provides ongoing advice, space and mentoring for these artists.

Like any artistic practice choreographers need to be given opportunities to practice their craft and unlike lots of other artistic practices they need a lot of resources to be able to do that – namely space, people and money.

This programme provides those resources and that is why it is such a valuable initiative for these artists and the sector in general.  

CM: How did you become involved? Can you describe your role?
BD: I was invited to be an Artistic Director for the final show on the main stage at Sadler’s Wells. My role was to provide a provocation for the artists to work with as they created their pieces and to help mentor the artists in their preparation for this show.   

CM: Can you tell us what kind of work – in terms of style and genre – we can expect to see? 
BD: The four pieces are very different in style ranging from work I would describe as dance theatre, through to work that is completely improvised, to more abstract dance. They are all incredibly strong in their own way. 

CM: What themes are explored through the work? 
BD: That is a long list. I feel like thematically they all reflect the last few years, which is not surprising.

The works take us into internal landscapes and, for me – although the choreographers might not agree with this summary – they all explore our feelings of isolation and fragmentation.

That makes the evening sound heavy. It’s not. The works are uplifting.  

CM: What has it been like to work with each of these different choreographers? 
BD: It has been a privilege. I feel like I’ve learnt far more than I’ve imparted. To watch the quiet certainty with which these four people have created these works has been a kind of revelation for me.

I often feel in my own process that I need to justify what I’m doing in words, and choreography is not a verbal process but still so often we have to sell it, describe it, pitch it and those all involve words.

These choreographers have often resisted the demand for words and for ‘making sense’ and I think have made stronger work as a result.  

CM: Can you tell us about yourself, now? Did you always want to work in the arts? How did your career begin? 
BD: Well, now I am the kind of artist who gets asked to mentor younger artists which means I must be getting old. That surprises me.

I think from a young age I was fascinated by the stage and followed quite a circuitous path to get onto it.

I trained as an actor, so my career began after drama school, but then after a short time working as an actor I disappeared back into full time education and trained to be a dancer so my career had two beginnings.   

CM: Can you tell us about Lost Dog – its aims and ethos – and your role within it? 
BD: Lost Dog is a small independent dance company. We make work that sits somewhere on the blurred boundaries between what is categorised as dance and theatre.

The name Lost Dog came from the idea of a mongrel. Our goal was to create work that was not easily categorised but work that was confident in its own identity. That is still our basic ethos.

I co-founded Lost Dog with Raquel Meseguer and am now the Artistic Director of the company.  

CM: What would you say have been the highlights of your career thus far? 
BD: There have been many. Winning 5000 euros at a choreographic competition in Spain in 2004 is probably still my favourite moment. I think without that moment none of the other highlights would’ve happened.  

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
BD: Right now my ambitions are shrinking to surviving as an arts organisation. It feels like a difficult moment and – while I have so many things I would like to do in the future – the thing right now, with the Arts Council decision around national portfolio organisations looming, is can we survive and continue to make work?  

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
BD: I’m currently working on a Christmas show for the Linbury Theatre at The Opera House. It’s a co-production between Lost Dog and The Opera House and it’s based on ‘Medea’. It seemed like a good story for Christmas.  

‘To Start With’ is on at Sadler’s Wells Theatre on Wednesday 26 Oct. See the venue website here for further information and to book tickets.

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Photo: Camilla Greenwell

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