Life is a Dream. Dreams are reality. We exist between waking and sleeping. Our perception creates our inner world of merging illusions and dreams, and our experienced world around us. Yet, this rich inner world defies any attempt to be grasp, hold or controlled by us.

Dreaming as a part of our existence is explored by Rambert in a contemporary dance adaptation of the Spanish baroque play Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. The two-time Olivier Award-winning choreographer Kim Brandstrup re-stages the story of the incarnated Prince Segismundo who enters the outside world, for Rambert together with the design of the Quay Brothers. This cinematic approach to revive the seventeenth century play is inspired by the music of the twentieth century Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski whose music channels the darkness of World War 2 and the Cold War yet finds sanctuary in creative expression and freedom of imagination.

Brandstrup was inspired by the image of the private room – the human psyche. His dance adaptation takes place in the rehearsal room where the director falls asleep and dreams about the rehearsal process and the story of imprisonment and sudden chance of freedom of Life is a Dream. Brandstrup was intrigued by the theatre approach of Polish director and theorist Jerzy Grotowski to focus on the bare bodies on stage, their physicality and the ‘strange inward gaze’ between power and vulnerability. The storyline of Life is a Dream is therefore reduced to the interaction of the Prince and a young woman who accidentally discovers his tower prison. The private room in Brandstrup’s production Life is a Dream not only echoes the limitation of the Cold War and its artistic attempts of liberation and resilience, but also moves towards the unmasking of the inner self and the question of being a sanctuary in our daily life.

Life is a Dream exists in two parts:

Part one explores the rehearsal process and the story of Prince Segismundo who is incarnated by his father, discovered by a young woman and freed for a day. His longing for touching and being touched – his urge for being in the outside world – creates a desperate, rapid and violent picture of human interaction on stage. The director observes the unfolding of the story manipulates and merges the couple of the dance rehearsal with the couple of the play in his imagination into a visible manifestation on the stage. The contemporary approach of an incarnated woman and her relationship to her farther extends the exploration of interpersonal longing and rejection, comfort and danger, which the play offers. The three couples on stage mirror each other and tell the same story differently: the imagination of life during the prince’s imprisonment and the first exploration of the world symbolized by the young woman. The first encounter with the world triggers violence and anger born in frustration of its lifelong deprivation. After being imprisoned again, the Prince enters the outside world a second time, this time with a cautious, delicate approach questioning the realness and clash of imagination and reality.

The second part immerses the director into the story. From being an outside observer, he becomes the Prince in his dreams urging for his imaginary life outside of his reality. The double staging of the director allows a philosophical questioning of the self as self-consciousness constantly obstructing the immersion of the self within the moment. The self of the director contradicts, fights and manipulates the own self to question the boundary of being alive and present in a dreamlike reality or reality-like dream. Rambert presents the immersion of the self of the director in his imaginations and creates a breath-taking dance where the scepticism of reality is overshadowed by the powerfulness of the own world creation.

Rambert has created a stunning, skilful and sensational journey to awake a 700-year-old play in the world of physicality and visuality with relevance today. The connectedness of the ensemble, the detail and rigour of the work presented, and the relationship of the soundscape, movement and projections constructs an outstanding, highly convincing and genuine approach to the story of our lives: the relationship of dreams and reality, the necessity of imaginations and the connectedness to the self in order to open up to others.

Nevertheless, the first part tends to be tangled with the co-existence of different versions of the story and could cause confusion. More guidance through the imprisonment and liberation of the different princes could ease the journey for the audience to distinguish the different storylines from each other and give them space to develop individually. Furthermore, the difference between the first and the second exploration of the outside world should be made clearer to move from violent rage into careful appreciation to stress the development of the Prince. Even though, the director becomes active and part of the story in the second part, the first parts lacks in interaction. The role of the observer should be explored in more depth concerning the power of his manipulation and animation of the characters and to emphasise his role as the director of the staged world. In this way, his immersion into the story travels from observation over direct influence to losing control of his own life between wishing and walking in its daily constraints.

Life is a Dream is a beautifully poetic exploration of a re-staging of a seventeenth century play with physical movements and dance to unmask the bodily interaction between the self and the others in a life both created by imaginations and reality and its merge in-between. Rambert’s new production by Brandstrup presents a psychological, philosophical and artistic approach towards the essence of life and the role of the self in our self-created, perceived and experienced world of limitless dreams and harsh wake-up calls of reality. Life is a Dream explores the power of our dreams to sharpen our daily life in the outside world.

Life Is A Dream played at the Sadler’s Wells until 26 May

Photo: Sadler’s Wells website