Rambert’s ‘Life is a Dream’ displays flighty and menacing dreamscapes

Life is a Dream. Liam Francis and Rambert Dancers. © Johan Persson

Life is a Dream, performed by Rambert’s dancers, displays a range of dreamscapes from flighty to menacing. The company’s dancing is exquisite and choreography intriguing enough, but the impressionistic projections by the Quay Brothers and use of lighting by Jean Kalman made the narrative-based programme memorable.

Mark Baldwin commissioned two-time Olivier-winning choreographer, Kim Brandstrup, to create the work. Brandstrup began with Pedro Calderón’s 17th-century play, but fiddled with the roles and transported it to the dance studio.

The show would have been incomprehensible if not for the printed summary; however, even though the dancers are clearly invested in the worlds that they have created, the show is still hard to follow.

Life is a Dream. Edit Domoszlai. © Johan Persson
Life is a Dream. Edit Domoszlai. © Johan Persson

The first half sees the dance director doze at a desk and dreams of the day’s rehearsal. He rises to witness various events unfold, but these representations of a destructive prince and his victims are muddled.

This is perhaps because the ‘different performers replay the roles of the prince and the young woman who discovers him,’ as the programme states. Despite the continual changes in roles, this does demonstrate that the choreography melds together nicely.

Throughout Life is a Dream, the setting embraces the dancers that gracefully slip throughout light and shadow. A female soloist gaily waltzes around, as golden morning sunlight gently cascades through the windows and French music pours out onto the stage.

Then the light fades and, just outside the window, foreboding winds roughly blow the trees’ leaves. Later in the programme, the confines of the space drop out. A clever projection shows the windows and walls toppling over to reveal a completely new world.

Life is a Dream. Sharia Johnson, Juan Gil, Rambert Dancers. © Johan Persson
Life is a Dream. Sharia Johnson, Juan Gil, Rambert Dancers. © Johan Persson

Immersing into the characters’ universe becomes markedly easier during the show’s second half. We see a shift in the power dynamic, as the woman he early affronted strongly rejects his dogged advances, reclaiming her space.

The rest of the cast solemnly files on like a Judgment Day jury; and a flurry of beautiful dance occurs: gravity-defying lifts and skirts fanning as legs reach up in pitched kicks.

The prince senses his imminent doom, and languidly, regretfully labours to hold his body up with a barre – a piteous closing statement. He cartwheels, legs thrown backward off centre, and caterwauls ever more frenetically before he is banished.

For much of the show, the characters watch each other, and the frequent, obvious entrances of the entire cast makes the show seem more like a continual parade or pageant.

Life is a Dream does transport the audience to other worlds – if only they have patience for the arduous journey.

Life is a Dream. Rambert Dancers. © Johan Persson
Life is a Dream. Rambert Dancers. © Johan Persson

Reviewed on 23 May 2018 at Sadler’s Wells.