Director and co-choreographer, Ivan Michael Blackstock
(Sadler’s Wells x 180 Studios in co-production with The Factory and Altruviolet, 7-16 April 2022)
Reviewed by Paul Mendez
Traplord is Ivan Michael Blackstock’s debut production for his own company ALTRUVIOLET. He is also Artistic Director of 180 Studios, and famously choreographed on Beyoncé’s visual album, Black Is King. In the programme notes for Traplord, Blackstock encourages audience members to feel, not intellectualise, and the tone is set for a visceral experience as an actor, wearing a hare-ears headpiece, directs a blinding torchlight into the audience. There is no formal start, but the audience settles as another actor performs supplicatory movements, a light shining a target onto his back, in time to sound director Luke Swaffield’s composition of sirens and portentous strings. The blaring sirens urge caution, especially where the physical potential of Black masculinity is concerned. Traplord maintains this discomfiting focus right to its end.
Chloe Lamford and Shanko Chaudhuri’s skeletal set resembles a Roman aqueduct. The choreography of Blackstock and associate choreographer Chaldon Williams exposes the potential and the misappropriation of the Black body. All-Black dancers, barely identifiable in blackface and dressed in all-black Nike sweats, produce startling, stiff body movements in unison, like a shrub in a breeze, perhaps, or the end of a live wire. Snatches of frantic, barely audible dialogue flare out amid tears of torture. Simisola Majekodunmi’s lighting design glows and dims intermittently, producing sets of near-still images. A mirror follows a performer’s every move, as ‘the perfect human form’ is discussed via voiceover.
A video projection, designed by Ian William Galloway using vintage gaming visuals, shows an 80s BMW cruising up a road through an endless council estate of identikit blocks. Further along in the piece, beyond the burning of the estate to the soundtrack of a live rap, the video presents an animation of red geometric grids.
I was reminded of the 1978 documentary film Black Britannica (censored to make the UK government look less bad). Advances in science have long been used to subjugate Blackness, from the Enlightenment-era use of skull measurement to ‘prove’ the inferiority of African people, to the ghettoes of late twentieth-century urban planning. The documentary explained how Britain’s so-called ‘race problem’ dictated that council estates be built with limited entrance and exit points. The residents’ quality of life was a lesser priority than ease of policing.
A cartoon figure in a pig mask, resembling a policeman on a school visit, asks students what they want to be when they grow up. When one of them says ‘a muthafuckin’ hustler, baby’, the pig gives chase to the hare. ‘The Traplord’ is the hegemonic overlord, the ‘Babylon’ whose machinations keep young Black people in submission. How does Black youth escape the social architecture of the open prison that is the urban centre?
An actor breaks the fourth wall to ask the audience if they would willingly be Black, and which of two pronunciations of ‘plantain’ is correct, linking the sound of the word to ‘plantation’, and hinting that Black-on-Black violence is a relic of enslavement mentality. Performance poet Magero’s spoken word lyrics examine how the celebrated physicality of the Black male body, macho attitudes and language can be armour to mask the insecurities of fatherlessness and mental ill-health triggered by structural racism. Mirrors, before which the dancers perform, suggest an awakening of double consciousness, as a voiceover continues to examine the form of ‘the perfect human’ – why should the marginalised Black body not consider itself so? Dance is a hermetic language, one in which the Black body is uniquely articulate, and Traplord is a beautiful, unsettling celebration of its limitlessness.