Rambert Dance Company: Life Is A Dream (4 stars)

Rambert Dance Company: Life Is A Dream

credit: Johan Persson

Spectacular new dance show from choreographer Kim Brandstrup

The Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski hid in a relative's attic while Warsaw burned. It was 1944, and while resistance fighters retaliated against their Nazi occupiers, Lutoslawski composed music with his mother, Maria. Knowing about the early trauma in Lutoslawski's life – where his father was executed when he was five, and music became both a coping mechanism and a safe place to escape into – explains some of the tortured, soured tones in his tense, stringed melodies.

Adding Lutoslawski's music then to Pedro Calderon de la Barca's unsettling play, Life Is A Dream, a story of violent rampages, rape, confused realities and sedation, was never going to make for a frilly, light production. Rambert has explored serious political subject matter before; Ghost Dances was created almost forty years ago by the choreographer Christopher Bruce as a response to Pinochet's violent coup in Argentina and it's now considered one of the company's 'greatest hits'. This is the first time Rambert has put on a full length narrative work though, rather than double or triple bills of separate pieces. It's hard to imagine that the move, not to mention the choice of story, isn't also a response to various catastrophic realities unfolding in the backdrop of real world 2018, and the need to build a sophisticated world of illusion and comfort to crawl into.

Black and white film projections and costumes in shades of crushed velvet grey keep the tone of Life is a Dream dark, but Kim Brandstrup's fluid choreography lifts the piece, blurring in glimpses of beauty, then snatching them away before they can get too settled in. The first act is a baffling, non-linear swirl of dreams, memory, fiction and sleep, where the director of a play nods off, remembering prison scenes from a rehearsal earlier in the day.

Jean Kalman's lighting design and Simon Kenney's set cleverly allow the walls to morph and bend; sometimes reflecting huge shadows back off the mirrored floor, or suddenly collapsing in on the dancers. The most powerful dance scenes are in the second act where dancer Liam Francis flops and droops his body around the stage, gliding metres at a time, like a gorgeous human version of a dripping Dali clock. His movements with one female, then one male dancer let surreal, lyrical shapes unfurl onto the gloomy set, letting pent up cracks of warmth in just in time before the cold, metal prison bed frame and panic-inducing high walls become too much to take. Ominous, wavy shadows at the tall windows don't paint the outside world as an inviting place, so it's no surprise that the main character, who's creating and starring in his own work at the same time, wants to end up back in his dream space before it evaporates away.

Rambert Dance Company: Life Is A Dream, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 24 Nov, then touring.

Rambert: Life is a Dream

New show from Olivier Award-winner Kim Brandstrup, featuring lyrical dancing from the world-class dance company alongside a live orchestra score by Witold Lutosławski.