At the Last Minute Rambert’s Life is a Dream Captures the Sense of Life-as-illusion

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rambert, Life is a Dream: Sadler’s Wells, London, 23.5.2018. (JO’D)

Rambert’s Life is a Dream (c) Johan Persson

Dancers: Liam Francis, Nancy Nerantzi, Miguel Altunaga, Stephen Quildan, Simone Damberg Würtz, Juan Gil, Hannah Rudd, Edit Domoszlai, Luke Ahmet, Adél Bálint, Joshua Barwick, Daniel Davidson, Brenda Lee Grech, Sharia Johnson, Pierre Tapon, Jacob Wye


Choreography – Kim Brandstrup
Design – Quay Brothers
Lighting – Jean Kalman
Costumes – Holly Waddington
Dramaturg – Willem Bruls
Sound Design – Ian Deardon

Music – Witold Lutoslawski Interlude for Orchestra, Nie oczekuje dziś nikogo, Chain 2, Musique   funebre, Symphony No.4, Dance Prelude 4

The Rambert Orchestra, tuning its instruments as the auditorium filled, produced sounds that immediately captured the attention. Even before the curtain had gone up on this ‘reimagining’ of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s baroque drama, La vida es sueño, agitated fragments from piano and strings made it clear why choreographer Kim Brandstrup should say, in the programme’s introductory note: ‘The project began with Calderón but the creative journey was set in motion by Lutoslawski’s music.’

It is the music of the twentieth-century, Polish composer, Witold Lutoslawski, that sustains one’s interest in the project as it unfolds. In Life is a Dream, Kim Brandstrup has let cinematic effects, provided by filmmakers the Quay Brothers, take precedence over everything else on the stage. Impressive in themselves, they make for a theatrical experience that is static and dull. Only at the very end of the piece is there a frisson.

Warning signs are there from the start. Light that seems to come from the headlights of a car moves across the darkened set. It picks out the head of a sinister-looking mannequin, the faces of seated figures, a reflective floor. Car headlights moving over dark walls are evocative. But if light is the protagonist, as it has been at significant moments in Kim Brandstrup’s previous work, dancers have to compete with it. In the first half of Life is a Dream they also have to compete with objects that fill the space (among them a bed, a bicycle, a radio). The opening duet is not between two dancers, but between one dancer and the mannequin.

A synopsis explains that the prison of La vida es sueño has been exchanged for a ‘derelict’ rehearsal room, in which a director dreams about that day’s rehearsal of the play. Different dancers, in doublets with straitjacket sleeves, take on the role of Segismundo, the Polish prince who is freed from this prison in which he has always lived, only to be returned to it after his day-long spree of violence and cruelty.

Although Juan Gil, Nancy Nerantzi, Hannah Rudd and Edit Domoszlai perform intense solos and duets that bring the first half of the piece fitfully to life, the audience is clearly waiting for something else to happen. It does not happen. After a climax provided by really excessive filmic effect and a shaft of diagonal light from an open door, the auditorium empties for the interval in bemused silence.

The second half of the piece proves that less is more. Except for the bed and the mannequin (a detail that now seems pretentious), the stage is bare. For the first time there is space in which dance can be performed. Liam Francis and Nancy Nerantzi do their best to make it the focus. A single window from the rehearsal room, projected on to the back wall of the stage, represents Segismundo’s return to his prison. At the last minute, in this less elaborate mise-en-scène, Life is a Dream captures the sense of life-as-illusion that makes Calderón de la Barca’s play so resonant.

John O’Dwyer

For more about Rambert click here.

Leave a Comment