Life is a Dream is a new dance show by Olivier Award winning choreographer Kim Brandstrup from Rambert.

Based on Calderon’s 1635 tragicomedy, Life is a Dream is Rambert’s first full-length narrative work for several decades. It is presented as a piece of hybrid storytelling through dance, where evocative staging and orchestral excellence are equal bedfellows to the performers.

However, I’m tempted to agree with some of the London reviewers who maintain that the programme notes for this work should be read in advance as you are ‘not going to be able to wing it’ (Evening Standard). Personally, I found it best to completely let go of reading the experience as a straight narrative, something I overheard some of the audience agreeing about in the interval.

A confession: I’d come for the Quay Brothers animations initially, only to discover their influence was quite subtle in the staging – but it was still off-kilter enough to feel like a collaborative adventure and boy, it was some staging. I was used to the Quay’s disturbing filmography, and here, largely in monochrome, dystopian vistas revealed a general, bubbling anxiety. Permit me an obscure reference – the morphing clouds and netherworld-like projections presented in Edinburgh resembled a now legendary episode of Twin Peaks (Season Three) aka The Atomic Bomb episode. I’m sorry if it’s an obtuse reference but it is relevant, and easily found on YouTube. Grey atom bomb clouds and unease.

The physical point where the design literally met the dance was revealed early on in the first act. The Quays seemed to have brought one of their tropes to life on stage – a kind of dressmaker’s dummy or mannequin which would later be danced with and spun on its castors, a little reminiscent of the Dalek master Davros, with an Eastern European twist. Something so simple retained a lot of quiet power on stage. It was a kind of hollow-man. Or woman. Or neither. But it served as the passage between human form and a dark underbelly of apprehensive desire, a theme echoed in the choreography to come.

And so it began. As low lighting remained fairly soft, a hospital bed and a desk flanked the edges of this studio-like set and the central character (a director?) drifted in and out of sleep. We could just make out the dancers who emerged into this quiet light as nocturnal animals. Was it that they were simply the contents of this director’s mind, or was the line much more blurred? The pace increased along with the scale as the whole ensemble came together in a flood of movement. Frisky allegro steps which were initially ‘physical theatre-like’ seamlessly morphed into accents that were tightly synched to Witold Lutos?awski’s wild score, which was exhilarating to hear played live.

A kind of dream-like code was revealed in the costumes, of which there seemed to be three different types; theatrical jackets and trousers, bodyhugging grey silk forms with flowing skirts, and then, a sort of cluster of mottled onesies. It’s as if each costume was a ripple further into a dreamstate. All these materials worked well with their hosts’ impressive muscular lines, taut spins and restrained arrangements of action and reaction.

It was quickly evident that we were witnessing world-class choreography from Brandstrup with equally world-class dancers and not a foot was out of place. Backs were arched and there even seemed a little parkour influence at the start. Pairs conjoined and departed, scattered and crawled back. The gravitational physics of the human body were pushed also – particularly notable was a female lead lifting a visibly heavier male without the slightest absence of grace or fluidity. I’ve never seen lifts and twists done as effortlessly, athletically and yet as gently as this.

It seemed that the central narrative revolved around two men and a woman each playing the same character with moves repeated by the rest of the cast – all ripples, waves and direct echoes. And the set was never really ‘still’; the walls morphed into a kind of dancing wheat field as similar elemental scenarios arose like seasons, before the set was covered in crucifix forms and the mood turned monastic. Before the end of the first act everyone was seated and appeared to breathe in synch, backs to the audience, before a fade to black.

In the second act, it appeared we are on the other side of the set – we could see its wooden construction and a figure was on the right of the stage holding a gigantic film light, throwing a bright glow on the mannequin, who had returned in quite a stark tableau. This second half appeared to be a freer, looser enterprise than the first where limbs appeared to be unfettered by the constraints of the tighter, greyer set of the first half. What that did, however, was to amplify further the difficulty of following a narrative, that, in the absence of first set, had little for the audience to latch onto. At least in direct meaning.

But whilst the narratives that influenced the choreography were initially hard to connect with, it did not detract from the excellent overall performance which received a footstomping rattle, whistles and roaring applause. From myself also.

Photos courtesy of Johan Persson.

For more on what’s on at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh. click here.