Billed by Rambert as a narrative work, Kim Brandstrup’s Life is a Dream is far closer to poetry than drama. It is inspired by Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 17th-century play of the same title, but Brandstrup buries any semblance of plot to give free rein to imagery, mood and symbolism. The only setup you need to know is that a theatre director, asleep in his studio, is dreaming about a scene that he and his actors had been rehearsing.
The stage (designed by the marvellous Quay Brothers) is a shadowed studio with darkened windows: there’s a bare hospital bed and a desk at which the director lies in a fevered sleep. At first the room behind seems empty, but the filtered light reveals an array of figures haunting its shadows, including the dreamland alter ego of the director. This doppelganger summons the actors on to the stage – or dreamscape – but who they are, who they are playing, and the difference between them, remains mysterious.
A central character is played at different times by two men and one woman, each of whom encounters a partner with whom they weave sinewy, unstable duets that send currents of motion eddying through the chorus like wind through trees. The three have their sleeves sewn up, like a straitjacket – another mystery – and are enraptured by a sense of touch when their hands are released. It is as if to touch something were to prove it is real.
Yet nothing feels real. One character is a hollow wooden model on wheels, and the setting suggests portals to other, imaginary worlds. The dancers keep being drawn towards the windows – which act as screens for video projections of forests or seascapes – as if yearning for an unknown realm outside. A side door casts a corridor of harsh light, perhaps revealing some off-stage horror, and the bed becomes a place where you might escape this unstable, illusory world through sleep.
Brandstrup’s choreography looks understated, but rewards attention. It is always finely composed and the dancing itself is richly inflected. Flurries of action catch the surges, spikes and trails of Witold Lutosławski’s restless score (played live – a real treat), and the sinewy spirals, tilts and feints make the dancers feel as evasive as the shadows they cast. Brandstrup also makes a virtue of restraint. Stillness and absence are as integral as action and presence, and he can make small gestures such as curling up, holding still or turning away feel large with implication.
Small gestures such as curling up, holding still or turning away feel large with implication
If Act 1 feels like a noirish cinematic hallucination – all atmosphere and suggestion, created by motion, sound and mise-en-scène – Act 2 is set firmly on the theatre stage before us, now stripped of walls and windows, its wings open and lights exposed. The chorus of dancers replay much material from Act 1, and the two embodiments of the director finally meet, pursuing each other through tumbles and dodges. It’s every bit as poetic as the first act, but now the narrative obscurity feels more of an obstacle: we need to understand more about who these characters are for the piece to move towards its end. Instead it remains a twilight zone where images loom large yet nothing can be grasped.