Rambert: Life is a Dream has only a three date stop-off at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh (Thu 22 to Sat 24 Nov) and, if you get the chance, try not to miss this one as it is not only one of the best works of contemporary dance that I have reviewed recently, but one of the best works of theatre.
Life is a Dream is the first full length narrative dance work in almost 40 years from Rambert, and choreographer Kim Brandstrup and designers Quay Brothers (Stephen and Timothy Quay) have created a work of vision and imagination here where every dance movement, every light source and shadow, every reflection have been carefully thought out to blend almost magically with the music of Witold Lutoslawski. This is dance and set design/lighting taking a visually cinematic experience to the stage and suitably here, the original Polish setting of the story and music by a Polish composer are complemented by many overtones in Polish art and cinema from the innovative and formative years of the early to mid 20th century and costume design that reflects the original 17th century story time-frame. The very dark and atmospheric feel of this production also owes a lot to lighting design from Jean Kalman and costumes by Holly Waddington.
Life is a Dream takes as its source material the Spanish baroque play of the same name (c 1635) written by Pedro Calderon de la Barca, which tells a variant of the common to many cultures story of “The Prince in captivity”. In this story, our imprisoned since childhood Prince is allowed out for one day, and in that day he takes revenge upon the people he encounters for his imprisonment. When he is subdued and re-awakens in captivity once more, he is told that everything that happened that day was a dream. On a second opportunity of freedom, The Prince treats the day with far more caution and suspicion. Shifting our prison cell to an abandoned and derelict rehearsal room with a lone director falling asleep and gaining magical powers, this re-imagining of space, time and events is captured wonderfully by the dancers of Rambert in a series of linked episodes that are full of grace, fluidity and expression. This is choreography at its imaginative best and frequently the established roles of male and female dancers switch places at the most unexpected moments.
What is reality, and what is a dream, is a question that has puzzled philosophers and mystics over the centuries, and at times the veil between the two can become very thin. There comes, I think, a time in many people’s lives when they ask themselves what side of the veil they are on – reality or the dream. Sometimes the question of are they even separate spaces has to be asked. It is against this very thin balancing wire of sanity that our dancers skilfully create a world on stage that seems to exist in some unexplored middle ground, an at times disturbing space just slightly out of our normal perceptions of reality. Here dream and reality have no fixed point and bleed constantly into one another.
Against this darkness, there are some wonderfully choreographed movements of wonderful grace and beauty mixed in with real darkness, and at times surprising dark humour as with the “man in the mirror” sequence.
The ability of our dancers to not only bring this world alive on stage, but to tell us stories without words, using only their body movements, is a pleasure to watch, and “Life is A Dream” is definitely one of my favourite theatrical experiences this year.
Review by Tom King