UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey

Wayne McGregor
Studio Wayne McGregor and The Royal Ballet with The Jim Henson Company
Sadler’s Wells Theatre

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Wayne McGregor's UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Wayne McGregor's UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Wayne McGregor's UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Wayne McGregor's UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Salvatore De Simone and Rebecca Bassett-Graham Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Jordan James Bridge and Rebecca Bassett-Graham Credit: Andrej Uspenski

The world is in a mess, no doubt about that, and Wayne McGregor’s UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey is also a mess, an esoteric muddle. To the left of me, my artist companion is whispering, “will it ever end”; to the right of me, my neighbour is on the phone throughout, totally unengaged with what is happening on stage. There are a few walkouts. And the production is only seventy-five-minutes long with no interval.

Too many ideas from the fertile, hyperactive mind of its creator; too many cooks—the creative collaborators list is long: the ten dancers’ choreographic contributions, composer Joel Cadbury, film designer Ravi Deepres, lighting designer Lucy Carter, spoken word artist Isaiah Hull, dramaturg Uzma Hameed, costume designer Philip Delamore and face-and-body artist Alex Box—to make a cogent whole, perhaps.

There is special thanks to illustrator Brian Froud and puppet maker and sculptor Wendy Froud, the concept artists of Jim Henson’s 1982 fantasy film, The Dark Crystal. McGregor, who must have been about twelve when he saw it, was captivated by it. As it happens, my sister (costumes) and her husband-to-be (creative supervisor) worked on that film in Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. It has many fans still.

I sat next to a couple of such fans, who had come from Southampton specially to see it, at its première (The Dark Crystal: Odyssey) at the Royal Opera House in 2023 (a "coming-of-age story" for family audiences), and they were hugely disappointed—it was nothing like the film, they said.

And how could it be… and it doesn't claim to be. McGregor’s homage to Henson’s concept of cruel Skeksis versus the gentle Mystics, evil versus good, is a distillation referencing burning (excuse the pun) ecological issues of today. And in any case, the tale was convoluted, and the film cast was huge. McGregor’s dance company is only ten strong.

What remains is an essence. There is what I take to be SkekSil the Chamberlain in ‘part reptile, part vulture, part dragon’ black stone headdress, and a mystical witchdoctor in African straw headdress and costume, but they are fleeting figures. It is all fleeting. Deepres’s video films on front scrim and backcloth envelop the dancers, who are hard to distinguish between them and under Carter’s dark black and red lighting.

Cadbury’s industrial portentous electronic music drives the fear of the annihilation of our planet in parallel with the frightful images of parched land, seafowl drenched in oil, Jodrell Bank observatories, forests and sea oil platforms burning, planetary explosions, a watchful bloodshot Masonic eye… an island floats by and I think of Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris.

There’s more astronomy and astrology: things of wonder, a beautiful fantail goldfish, nebulae, stars, underwater fronds, mystical symbols, geometric pyramids, Fibonacci spirals—an onslaught of images flash by—as do the dancers in their space age costumes, in unitards that cover their faces, in ordinary black tracksuits. Some fight, heads pop, some scream silently, some make beautiful shapes, some just run round and round the stage. Hieroglyphs on the scrim and bodies making hieroglyphic shapes...

The dancers are very committed, as much of the choreography is theirs—“they are credited as co-creators”, “inventing a huge amount of movement material that he assembles.” Very much in his over-arched, over-extended, sway-backed signature style, some resemble the avian and simian co-inhabitants of the earth that must be rescued from extinction.

“Choreography is not one thing—it’s the organisation of motion in a range of constellations,” says McGregor. A Merce Cunningham acolyte, he plays with the element of Chance, as did his role model, in both UniVerse and Autobiography (v95 and v96) (12–13 March). Random was the name of his contemporary dance company before he changed it to Company Wayne McGregor—I preferred the former, as it so explicitly described his brain firing on all its synapses and his movement style.

A meditation on a world in conflict with itself, it’s not always easy to keep up, and my companion wonders, “will it ever end,” because there are many false endings, but McGregor can’t stop. Nor should we, he is saying, in our urgent attention to the state of the world. Hull’s spoken poetry spells out the anxiety and despair.

UniVerse is styled as “a modern eco-myth” with the mythological Dark Crystal as its jumping off point, but the patchy, disjointed whole lacks coherence. And would you Adam and Eve it… it ends under a young tree in the Garden of Eden?

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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