Choreography: Kim Brandstrup
Music: Witold Lutoslawksi
Review: Peter Jacobs
Rambert are going through a period of change. Long-standing Artistic Director Mark Baldwin has stood down. A Guest Artistic Director American-choreographer Benoit Swan Pouffer was appointed in 2018 while a permanent occupant for the post is recruited. They have a new junior company: Rambert 2. Then Rambert announce that for the first time in more than 30 years they are creating a new full-length narrative work – Life is a Dream by double-Olivier winning choreographer Kim Brandstrup. They have in the intervening decades presented mixed programmes, usually with a headline new creation.
Life is a Dream reimagines the Calderon play of the same name (c1635) about an incarcerated Polish prince who is freed for one day, goes on a rampage of violence and cruelty and is returned to re-awake, uncertain whether his experiences were real or imagined. Later he is freed and approaches the world with uncertainty as if it could all be an illusion.
Brandstrup places his Life is a Dream in a derelict rehearsal room where a director dreams fitfully, reimagining and magically manipulating his cast to tell and retell the story of the prince and the young woman who discovers him. Later, between sleeping and waking he realises that he cannot control the real and outside world in the same way and is torn between reality and the dream state where he is ruler.
Unfortunately, without a modicum of research – the programme notes will do – most of this is completely obscure from viewing the show. Because the director is met while asleep and barely encountered as a functioning human being in the real world, there is a difficulty in engaging with the action at all. The choreography uses a lot of mirroring of parts so the director also has a dream double, which doesn’t help. Every other person on the stage is a character – real or imagined – within the director’s dreams – many of them in mirrored pairs.
The set by the Quay Brothers is evocative and substantial but representing both an industrial-looking rehearsal room and the castle and with a distinct patina of decay on both set and costumes the piece has a very fleeting sense of place that arguably hovers somewhere in Europe in the mid-twentieth century? The costumes by Holly Waddington are exquisitely detailed in both construction and research but specifically blur 17thcentury Spanish costume with 1950s fashion in a way that further confuses the sense of place.
Brandstrup has set the entire piece to a selection of music by Polish-composer Witold Lutoslawksi, which is crisply played by a live orchestra conducted and arranged by Christopher Austin, with violin soloist Richard George. The music is lovely but not an especially melodic or easy listen and carries little to establish character or narrative. Instead, the score adds to the uneasy sense of place and the overwhelming and unsettling feelings of claustrophobia that haunt the piece as a whole.
The performances and choreography are fine, although there is little in the way of character and action for Rambert’s dance company to hold on to; Liam Francis as the director, for example, is little more than a cipher. The lighting design by Jean Kalman is especially lovely. But Life is a Dream is challengingly difficult to engage with and navigate narratively. And apart from some fine digital projection that briefly transforms the room into a fantastical landscape and the high production values there seems to be little modern or exciting about Life is a Dream either in style or content.
With its themes that question the meaning and value of reality it seems to emanate from more of a mid-century place. The second half is sparkier and a little fresher-looking but as the director struggles to remain in the waking world the audience perhaps share a little of his journey.
Runs until 12 October 2018 | Image: Contributed