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Life is a Dream
Rambert perform “Life is a Dream” by Kim Brandstrup. Photograph by Johan Persson

When You Wake You’re in a Dream

Kim Brandstrup's dark & dramatic, “Life is a Dream”

Performance
Rambert's “Life is a Dream” by Kim Brandstrup
Place
Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Scotland, February 14, 2019
Words
Lorna Irvine

Rambert’s latest touring production is a slippery thing, with all the fragmentary structure of a fever dream and featuring enough dark imagery to induce night sweats. Inspired by Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s 17th century baroque play, the original narrative focused on a Polish prince who is imprisoned by his father, only to escape for one day and see the perspective of another world. Danish born, Britain-based Kim Brandstrup’s meta choreography uses this as a jumping off point. Here, he taps into the many hidden layers of the subconscious, the activity of the mind in its dreamlike state. This is both blessing and curse, as the elusive quality which governs the piece makes it hard to warm to—initially, at least. 

Some of the work feels a little tentative, and on occasion maddeningly literal, as with so many artistic depictions of madness, such as the gnashing of teeth and fist shaking. Brandstrup deals in the nature of making itself, the creative process with the choreographer as manipulator or puppet master. He calls the tune, he can destroy as easily as he can build. Dancers Liam Francis and Miguel Altunaga play the choreographer as such, with two sides to his troubled psyche-strutting and vulnerable—and the superb ensemble sway and pulse to his every conjuring gesture.

Inevitably, themes of incarceration and alienation are stitched into the movements. The ensemble perform repetitive little staccato, jack-in-the-box bursts of violence. They flex, twitch and claw at their prison walls and windows, where the Quay Brothers’ beautiful projections display elemental shapes: fronds, trees and billowing blossoms, mocking the very notion of freedom. What lies outside? Please take us to it. These esteemed film makers bring a very European sensibility to the production, from both sides of the twentieth century—like the films of both Robert Wiene and Jean Luc Godard—where shadowy shapes take on new forms and the suggestion of phantasmagoria lies in corners. It’s truly gorgeous staging to behold, like witnessing museum exhibits bursting to life.

Rambert perform “Life is a Dream” by Kim Brandstrup. Photograph by Johan Persson

Straitjacketed waif Edit Domoszlai cuts a Jane Avril like figure, as she crawls on all fours, ridden with unspeakable horrors. The long sleeves of Holly Waddington’s magnificent charcoal vintage costumes hide the hands of the dancers, as though they have been cut off. Yet, once the outside world has been glimpsed, the desire to escape becomes all-consuming. Daniel Davidson and Brenda Lee Grech’s half-lit figures move like apparitions, children moved like chess pieces in the game. They seem like faded circus performers, sad Pierrot clowns flickering away like old celluloid. And Nancy Nerantzi is a symbol of both desire and gaslighting, a graceful, willowy muse pushed and pulled around on a hospital bed, always half of a pas de deux to come, an unfinished creature like a prop.

With a stunning live Lutoslawski score from the Rambert orchestra, which falls between dissonance, elegant arpeggios and twinkly, percussive playfulness, it is the second half of the production, with the choreographer character joining the action, where the piece really finds its rhythm and ignites. A nod to the Marx Brothers mirroring scene aside (it’s jarring and feels superfluous, given the bleakness of tone elsewhere) the solos are rich and dense, and the repetition of the first half gives way to an unfurling rolling ensemble, on the brink of chaos, where the sidelined players now have their own agency. It never resolves, and nor should it. Dreams can, after all, often be as elusive as a simple gesture, or the leap of a body in grand jeté.