Review: ★★★★ Dystopian Dream, Sadler’s Wells

Where are we going? What have we become?

Dystopian Dream is a production of extraordinary depth and significance, touching on eternal themes of life, death and human relationships. It is both a danced piece of theatre and a visualisation of an album, Nitin Sawhney’s 2015 Dystopian Dream, with such a sense of interconnection between the music, the visuals and the choreography that they seem to all be somehow the same thing, to have organically, chemically created each other in the petri-dish of the stage at Sadler’s Wells. It is a universe of its own, bound by solipsistic logic: a kind of limbo, a nowhere space of dreams, nightmares and the afterlife.

Choreographically the piece is rich and varied. Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez bring their house style of urban, contemporary fusion to this work, moving between fluid duets and jagged, solo moments. Wang brings an otherworldly texture to her movements, creeping like an electronic animal in starts and spurts across the stage whilst Ramirez works with impressive, dynamic style in several aerial sequences. The partnership between the two dancers is beautiful and unselfconscious, and they work to create the several different environments that the piece seems to move through, even including a humorously inverted domestic scene at a dinner table.

A wonderful relationship is cultivated between the dancers and Eva Stone, who provides gorgeous live vocals throughout the piece. Stone is a singer of power and depth, somehow managing to sing whilst being dragged across the stage and even with Wang perched on her back. This latter moment is one of the strange jewels of this piece, a duet developing between the two female performers as they move together in supportive shapes across the floor whilst Stone sings “I keep the light on for you/ Though the world keeps saying we’re through”. The inclusion of Stone in the movement landscape of the piece is surprising but perfect, with the trio working in a vibrant sequence around a table that has touches of the style of physical theatre companies such as Frantic Assembly and Gecko.

The aerial work is simply stunning, with Ramirez taking on the majority of the aerial performance. This element of the piece adds to the otherworldly dynamic and is strangely expressive: there is a sequence in which the cables suspending Ramirez also seem to be holding him back, dragging him across the stage. There is both freedom and restraint in this flight: a succinct, visual metaphor for the human experience. One of the most moving episodes of Dystopian Dream uses aerial suspension, in which a corpse-like Stone is washed and then reanimated through aerial work by Ramirez. It is both disturbing in its Frankenstein-esque imagery and very beautiful in its tenderness and longing, exploring perhaps the relationship between the living and the dead at the moment of letting go.

Our travels through the landscapes of Dystopian Dream are greatly enhanced by the playground of the set, designed by Shizuka Hariu with an Escher-like staircase and a central slope, and the incredible immersive visuals of Nick Hillel and Yeast Culture. These mapped projections add to the sense of a dream or nightmare landscape, as blocks tumble and a black water boils along the back wall of the stage. The use of haze at one point reveals streams of light pouring from the fly-tower to map a shape on the stage, creating sharply delineated golden rays and adding a spiritual element to the piece.

Although the juxtaposition of these different landscapes is effective the moments don’t always connect very well, leading to a sense of disjointedness and narrative confusion. The dancers and singer too appear to play different characters at different moments, the relationships fluctuating and changing in a way that is just clear enough to see but not clear enough to understand. The tension of the piece also bags a little during the one hour and fifteen minute running time, with some moments feeling more like interludes than full-tracks on the album and so lacking the drive or intensity that characterises the rest of this fabulous work.

“We are sandwiched between infinite space and time” writes Sawhney in the programme notes, referring to Dystopian Dream the album as his “response to mortality and our search for our own significance”. Dystopian Dream the theatre piece seems to be both this moment caught between two infinites and an exploration of the infinite itself. Sound-tracked by the sometimes abstract, sometimes lyrical work of Sawhney, it is a glorious and moving piece of philosophical art. Let’s hope they bring this piece back for a longer run: it deserves to be seen widely, for its themes pertain to us all.

Esme Mahoney
Esme Mahoney

Esme Mahoney is a graduate of Drama Centre’s MA Acting course, having previously studied English Literature at the University of Cambridge. Esme has been involved in productions as an actor, director, producer and stage manager – one of her most memorable experiences was as DSM for a production of Lord Of The Flies, in which she was chiefly responsible for putting flaming torches into the hands of children as young as twelve.


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