Company Wayne McGregor in UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey

Sadler’s Wells, London
March 15, 2024

Why is it increasingly common that one leaves the theatre with a shaken soul and even a bitter aftertaste? Instead of being lost in the magical feeling of seeing simple and brilliant artistry in dance, why do we more and more often find ourselves left wondering, ‘What did we just see?’ Choreographers seem to be obsessed with troubling the audience in new and extreme ways with the power of a simple but well-thought and well-painted dance increasingly lost on them.

I have always enjoyed Wayne McGregor’s choreographies. Little did I know that the choreography of UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey would be the least of what I would see.

The work takes inspiration from Jim Henson’s dark fantasy film of 1982, The Dark Crystal. McGregor says he was captivated by its oddity. He wanted to adapt it from a puppet show to a dance and visual performance that communicates the impression of an idling world. It’s a nice premise which, together with McGregor’s choreography, seems like a guaranteed success. Its implementation appears to have been taken a bit too far, though. Had the show been promoted as a visual art thriller, its aim would have been brilliantly fulfilled.

Jordan James Bridge and Rebecca Bassett-Graham
in Wayne McGregor’s UniVerse, A Dark Crystal Odyssey
Photo Andrej Uspenski

Be warned. You will experience scares during the performance but while these punctuate the work, they struggle to add artistic and narrative value, at least when it comes to dance.

The tension is kept for the nearly ninety minutes of the piece by repetitive loud music and disturbing projections. It seems unfortunate that these same projections take attention away from the dancing, even sometimes visually blocking it.

The show depicts a variety of scenes with natural and ecological themes. From fire to water, to space and constellations. As UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey jumps back and forth, many times, the choreography ends up not being the main protagonist.

This was apparently an intentional choreographic choice. It seems McGregor wanted the dancing to just be another piece of the performance and believed that it was time to add new technology to the stage. Analogous to how our minutes are filled with constant attention to our phones, computers, emails, texts…, all the technology also gets in the way of seeing the dancers and their art. Though this could add to scenes and complement them, in many cases, it is confusing and discomforting.

Wayne McGregor’s UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey
Photo Andrej Uspenski

When there are minimal distractions, the quality of the dancers is evident. They show high levels of versatility as they cleanly execute a range of movement styles, despite their dance being restricted by the costume design. Those costumes do provide a helpful visual aid, enabling the audience to understand scenes, though. Some underwater scenes are beautifully portrayed, the designs helping create an sub-surface mirage, for example. The choice of having the dancers’ faces covered as they represented natural elements is impersonal, if effective.

A number of presumably shaken people exited the auditorium before the show had finished. While one can see what McGregor is seeking to achieve, UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey is certainly filled with unnecessary anxiety. Perhaps that reflects the different way we see things. Nevertheless, if you can endure the unnerving projections and the musical scares, the different scenes of nature embodied by the brilliant dancers make it a satisfying experience, if perhaps a little disappointing overall.