Cult Eighties movie gets the Wayne McGregor treatment

Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer at The Royal Ballet, reimagines Jim Henson’s 1982 film, The Dark Crystal (Pål Hansen)

Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer at The Royal Ballet, reimagines Jim Henson’s 1982 film, The Dark Crystal (Pål Hansen)

Wayne McGregor’s latest work uses a 1980s fantasy film as a jumping-off point for a whirl of digital imagery, propulsive dance, and plenty of sidetracks. UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey dithers between evoking the themes of Jim Henson’s 1982 film, and delivering an essay on their contemporary resonances. There are plenty of blind alleys, but in its best sequences, it becomes a giddy pileup of movement and image.

McGregor, resident choreographer at The Royal Ballet, returns to his own company for this work – and takes greater freedom with his source material. The title tips you off that this isn’t a straight stage adaptation of The Dark Crystalsin which the team behind The Muppets created a fantasy universe of warring cultures and a quest to restore a damaged world.

McGregor’s key interests are movement and concepts; he’s not particularly drawn to storytelling. This time, he and his regular dramaturg, Uzma Hameed, avoid being named roles to create something that isn’t a plot but sometimes behaves like one. Dancers will wander in, doing I Am Having An Emotion face, but it’s often unclear what the feeling is, or what it’s a reaction to. Perhaps they overestimate the film’s recognition factor: it has a cult following, but its characters and their dilemmas aren’t household names.

Sometimes the show tells an explicit story, like the competition for a beaky headpiece that symbolizes power. Or it steps back altogether, with a voiceover from the spoken word artist Isaiah Hull that nods to melt ice caps and the cost of living.

Over 90 minutes, it can feel muddled – but the dancing doesn’t, and nor does the production. McGregor and his collaborators fill the stage with layered and lavish effects. Ravi Deepres’ film design projects images onto screens behind and in front of the nine dancers, so they’re immersed in high-resolution photography.

In one terrific sequence, Deepres’ camera swoops in to an image of an eye, the tracery of veins becoming the branches of trees in a burning forest. The dancers came charging through, fierce and urgent, driven harder by Joel Cadbury’s percussive electronic score.

Dr Alex Box and Philip Delamore dress the dancers in a mix of patterned unitards, sometimes with headpieces or layered padding that transforms their body shapes. There are no puppets – but one straw figure moves with the unsettling quality of puppetry, combined in unexpected ways. In more intimate scenes, McGregor creates more complex duets and trios, his fine dancers wrapping around each other with a sense of tenderness and vulnerability.

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