Rambert’s ‘Life is a Dream’ at Sadler’s Wells

Dance correspondent Christy Wensley praises the indeterminate structure and expressive fluidity of Rambert’s latest production, Life is a Dream.

In Rambert’s first full-length narrative work created for the company since 1979, Kim Brandstrup reimagines Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 17th-century Spanish Baroque play about the limits of reality. In the original, Calderón’s imprisoned prince, who has been incarcerated since childhood, is released for one day. During his 24 hours of freedom he rampages through the unknown world, committing acts of violence, rape and attempted murder before being returned to his cell and put to sleep. He awakens, convinced it was all a dream, only to be pardoned and re-released. Approaching the outside and newly ‘unknown’ world, he steps into it with caution and wonder. Here, Brandstrup and his design collaborators, the Quay Brothers, multiply the narrative of the Prince to comment upon the illusory pleasures and dangerous orchestrations of art, with its capacity to control and overtake the bodies that both create and are, in this case, choreographed upon.

Rambert’s Life is a Dream, Liam Francis and Rambert Dancers. Copyright Johann Persson.

Set in what the Quay Brothers describe as a ‘ derelict 1959 rehearsal room’, Life is a Dream features the gorgeously expressive and fluid dancer Liam Francis as one of the many iterations of the imprisoned protagonist. In Act 1, Francis is the director-choreographer of a revival of the play within this performance, rehearsing and revising his work whilst drifting in and out of sleep. His dream follows three parallel casts, who trade and transform the roles they play, as well as their costumes and temporalities, the tone of their very movements and relations to one another, including their genders. The first act is anchored in the brilliant duet work within these interlocking and interchangeable configurations representing the prince and the visitor who seeks to unlock something in the bodies and physical spaces which hold the prisoner.

Rambert’s Life is a Dream, Rambert Dancers, copyright Johann Persson.

The first duo of Stephen Quildan and Simone Damberg Würtz have a weightier, more tragic expression; a lethargy of movement drawn from an equable athleticism and strength. Their movements seem to come from an earthier, lower, register, as if the prison space roots them into the ground. The movements of both dancers generate from the strength of Damberg Würtz’s powerful legs and back, grounding Quildan’s more erratic movements as the lost prince. This contrasts with the almost brittle and glass-like perfection of the razor sharp, noir-styled duo of Hannah Rudd and Juan Gil. Rudd and Gil, with their chiseled cheekbones and attenuated movements eliminate the pathos of the first duo’s interpretation, and exacerbate the fetishized artificiality of the polish of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ and dance’s quest for perfection. The ‘clash’ between these competing styles and notions of narrative performance, in the lead dancers and in their respective ‘ensembles,’ presents a controlled ‘chaos’ that only further highlights the skill and professionalism of the company and its choreographer.

The ‘third’ cast adds another layer onto the more obvious (and sometimes vertiginous) meta-narrative of the piece, with Edit Domoszlai’s moving and uncanny asylum inmate paired with Miguel Altunaga. This final pairing brings us into a closer relation with the ‘present’ of the 1950s-described set – where the director-dreamer’s ‘double’ is Altunaga’s asylum keeper trying to reach and move his somnambulist patient-ballerina, reproducing the conditions of creative control. The act closes with the ensemble and audience gathered into our shared space, watching a film projected on the stage-asylum-rehearsal room wall as the curtain falls.

Rambert’s Life is a Dream, Edit Domoszlai, copyright Johann Persson.

In Act 2, both the boundaries of plot and stage space are further crossed as the dreaming ‘director’ is now the prince of a modernized and post-modernist stage-set, accompanied by his cast and their re-enactments, revisions, and sharpened edits to the Act 1 performances. In this act, the ‘duet’ is reinvented in a ‘mirror’ episode between Liam Francis and Miguel Altunaga, which plays with and to both men’s strengths even as it demonstrates their abilities to dance with another. After these thrilling partnerships, the entire ensembles’ migratory perfectionism, and Liam Francis’s divine solo work, the final moments of the performance in another iteration of the ‘prince’ and the young woman he encounters, falls somewhat flat. Francis and Nancy Nerantzi, while both elegant and perfectly timed, did not have the same connection, emotionally or physically, as the other pairings of the night, and were not quite capable of eliciting the response that the previous duets and Francis’s solo work inspired. Perhaps, like Francis’s ‘dreaming’ director, I drifted in these final minutes. The piece ended too abruptly in its stark and overdetermined moment of triplicate unreality: the man trapped and returned to the ‘prison’ of, in this case, artistic finality and the closure of an overly circular and completed ‘plot’.

I may differ from others in my resistance to meaning, as I overheard a few people (and read one review) which lamented the work’s ‘narrative incoherence’ as a weakness. But for me, the point of the piece resides in the way that the movements perfectly cohere but the ‘plot’ (whatever that could possibly mean in the context of the ‘dream’ framework of the piece itself and in the larger conditions of dance as an art form) celebrates indeterminancy. The joy of modern dance is its delight in and insistence on constantly playing with the limitations of narrative and of bodily instabilities and impossibilities.

And this brings me to my limitations in encountering this work: how do you respond to something that is so invested in its own aesthetics that the piece replicates and perhaps problematically produces the very conditions of seeking ‘perfection’ that it questions and challenges? Everything was so highly-produced, stylized, practiced, and performed; I felt as though I was watching the live performance on a screen. The triumph of the work, in addition to the performers and the attention and skill they bring to Brandstrup’s exact and exacting choreography, lies in the set design by the Quay Brothers and in Holly Waddington’s costumes, which don’t exactly ‘bring to life’ – as the performance is more one of sublime surreality – but rather animate the ‘Polish / Cold War aesthetic’ that inspired Brandstrup. These influences include composer Lutosławski’s ‘turbulent music’ and the work of avante-garde theatre-makers like Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor, who, in the words of Brandstrup, ‘were imprisoned in many ways, dreaming about the world beyond, yet they did fabulous things.’

Rambert’s Life is a Dream, Sharia Johnson, Juan Gil, Rambert Dancers. Copyright Johann Persson.

Life is a Dream should be seen for the sheer technical skill of all involved, if for nothing else, and will earn its place in the dance canon as a work of crystalline physical-poetic art. It produced a form of distant pleasure, but, in the end, I found it incapable of eliciting strong emotion beyond appreciation and technical wonder. That is not a fault (it was an almost flawless night), but it is a completely different experience from the tension created by more raw or experimental works. The escape into this world is not a liberating collision with the uncertainty or possibilities for chaos within the unstaged ‘reality’ outside of the pristine glass walls of Sadler’s Wells: it is an experiment in the dream of perfection, the fetishized presentation of violence and desire with extreme skill that is honed and polished, illusory and, ultimately (though beautifully), un-lifelike.

Rambert’s Life is a Dream had its world premier at Sadler’s Wells from 22nd to the 26th May and is on tour now. For the latest information from Rambert, including tour dates, click here: http://www.rambert.org.uk/performances/life-is-a-dream/

For Sadler’s Wells’ seasonal programme, click here: https://www.sadlerswells.com

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