Extended Play: How to Build a Universe

Studio Theatre, Curve, Leicester
January 18, 2024

The latest production from choreographer Jamaal Burkmar, How To Build A Universe developed over several years and a out of a shorter version seen outdoors at festivals. Partly inspired by A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson’s summation of life, the universe and everything, it’s multi-layered. It can be taken at face value but it also leaves plenty of room for the viewer to put their own interpretation on what they are seeing. There are quite a few rabbit holes for the mind to wander down.

It comes in two, linked parts. In the first, at the end of time, five people (Imogen Wright, Alex Gosmore, Haizea Andueza, Fern Grimbley and Pablo Reyero) from different universes meet in a blank void. Over six ‘chapters’ with titles like ‘Calibration’, ‘Hard Choices’ and ‘Cosmic Soup’, they are led, and to a significant extent instructed, by a mysterious voice (Burkmar himself) as they create a new world. This naturally involves echoes of the survivors’ pasts although it’s impossible to tell what they are since we know little of their histories.

Extended Play in How to Build a Universe by Jamaal Burkmar
Photo Genevieve Reeves

“You are in safe hands,” the voice tells them early on. Why does that sound slightly disturbing? Whatever, and perhaps it’s a reflection of what they have been through and the need for certainty in lives, but the quintet are generally compliant. What signs there are of a desire to escape the directions they are being given, any hints of non-compliance or hesitation, are quickly stamped on. The voice gets impatient and insistent with Fern in particular.

It’s funny and disturbing in equal measure, and I can’t think also says something about modern society. Indeed, it’s impossible not to see the whole work as not so much being about building a universe in the scientific sense, but about the building and functioning of a community. The five dancers come together and are supportive of each other, but all communities have leaders, authority figures, and here we are left in no doubt who it is.

But leaders have weaknesses and need support too. For all it’s creepily calm belief and certainty, even the voice has a mini crisis of confidence when it cannot say ‘extinction,’ and turns to previously unheard others for back-up and assurance.

Extended Play in How to Build a Universe by Jamaal Burkmar
Photo Genevieve Reeves

The work flips easily between physical theatre (especially at the beginning) and playful contemporary dance. The cast are excellent throughout. At different times, they don gas-mask respirators and coloured suits as told. Once past the opening scene-setting chapter, there’s a lot of dance. Often fast-paced and driven by Jameszoo’s music, it’s at its best in unison sequences that are invariably tightly performed.

But after around forty-five minutes, there’s a surprise. An extra layer. Perhaps it’s spite, pettiness or simply boredom, but the voice imposes newcomers on the original five. As the local dancers (in Leicester, eight), who really did only arrive that morning, come to the stage, the enlarged ensemble improvise having had minimal rehearsal together.

The result is something unique to each show. New movement and ideas appear as they feel each other out, some of which is very engaging and interesting although, as always with improvisation, some is less so. But although the device gives the work new life, on this occasion at least, it also contributed to a bit of a loss of focus. As the show closed, it felt a little like we left the performers drifting in the vastness of space, still looking for arrival. But perhaps that’s a reflection of real life for many too.

How to Build a Universe continues on tour and is next at Gloucester Guildhall (February 24), The Place London (March 1 & 2) and ACE Dance & Music Birmingham (March 22 & 23). For more details and links to booking for all venues, visit theplace.org.uk.