Sadler’s Wells, London
May 23, 2018
It’s been a long time coming. Kim Brandstrup’s Life is a Dream is the first full-length narrative work created for Rambert since Glen Tetley’s The Tempest in 1979. It is certainly challenging. Made in collaboration with filmmakers the Quay Brothers, the two-act modern reimagining of the 17th-century play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca may not be the Scandi-noir of TV series, but it’s certainly a darkly mysterious affair, one in which there are plenty of dimly-lit corners for the narrative to hide.
And you do need to hunt for it. Piece of advice number one to anyone going to see Life is a Dream would be to read the programme; the long articles as well as the synopsis. Piece of advice number two would be to read it all again. But then sit back and enjoy the cinematic feast of visual images, and startlingly good dance, that Brandstrup creates.
Calderón’s play features an incarcerated Prince who, freed for just one day, goes on a violent rampage. Seized and returned to prison, he wakes up and thinks it was all a dream. But when released for a second time, he approaches everything with caution and wonder, in case it all evaporated in a moment.
Brandstrup transposes the action to a run-down rehearsal room, although its three pillars, although the grey, grimy walls and barred windows suggest somewhere darker. In a generally monochrome palette, it is all decidedly beautiful though. It’s also very claustrophobic. Those pillars, two to the right and one to the left, neatly divide the space and provide a few more dark corners. Brandstrup seems to like pillars, having also had one rather more prominently positioned in Transfigured Night, also for Rambert, and Jeux for New York City Ballet, both made in 2015.
The mood is enhanced by impressive projections from the Quay Brothers (an early one of leaves seen blowing in the wind through the windows before they engulf the whole studio is especially impressive), Jean Kalman’s grainy lighting and Witold Lutoslawski’s music all add to the other-worldly atmosphere, while Holly Waddington’s costumes give things a slightless timeless feel.
As a director (Liam Francis) drifts off to sleep, moments from the day’s rehearsals of Calderón’s play flit through his mind. Moments from the play are replayed slowly and surreally. Illusion and reality collide and combine as scenes are repeated. Different performers take on the roles of the prince and the girl who discovers him, yet none are ever tightly defined, all of which does confuse somewhat. Indeed, for someone usually so clear with narrative, even in what might be called ‘abstract narrative’ or themeatic pieces, here things are all rather indistinct.
The Quay Brothers black and white projections often show broad landscapes that engulf the stage before dissolving into mere memory once again. And then there’s that very spooky wooden mannequin, which we all know is just that, but which also looks very real as it is moved around the space.
Intense solos come and go. Duets too. Life is a Dream does keep you hooked, but the narrative does not develop. The director, and we the audience, are stuck in his dream. But what a place to be stuck!
Act II sees the director much more to the fore and much of the decoration stripped away. That mannequin is still there, though. One excellent section, the best of the evening, sees the Francis and Miguel Altunaga (both playing him at the same moment) meet in a physically thrilling duet.
Life is a Dream tours nationwide from September 27, 2018. Visit www.rambert.org for dates, venues and booking information.