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UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey

  • Dance, Contemporary and experimental
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey, Royal Opera House, 2023
Photo: Andrej Uspenski

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

This bleak dance riff on the cult Jim Henson fantasy film and the climate crisis is weird, dark and thrilling

This review is from a 2023 performance at the Royal Opera House. 

Dance performances at the Royal Opera House don’t typically begin with jumpscares. Nor do they feature rumbling techno scores, or have an interactive digital set projecting otherworldly CGI images of floating amoeba-like creatures. And yet, ‘UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey', has all of these things. 

Based on Jim Henson’s 1982 dark fantasy puppet film ‘The Dark Crystal’, Company Wayne McGregor’s both wacky and bleak new production doesn’t quite follow the narrative of an elf on the quest for a crystal. Instead, the show takes key elements and themes from the movie – fantastical creatures, the destruction of worlds, and as the programme note puts it ‘ecological overtones’. What we’re given is a 70-minute plotless mystical odyssey through different realms, encountering a cornucopia of creatures, elements and humans.

In an hour and 10 minutes with no interval we are hauled through time, space and everything in between. The typically awe-inspiring dancers’ strength, flexibility and precision allows them to be chameleon-like. With a cast of 11, we meet bizarre creatures made of hay, a sinister snake-like monster which hisses and hits the floor, aggressive forest fires and celestial water molecules. For the majority of the show, the dancers are faceless, enveloped in avant-garde full-body suits designed by Dr Alex Box and Phil Delamore. 

There’s not much hope in this cheerless world. It’s bookended by spoken word poetry from Isaiah Hull, whose words draw on overconsumption, rampant individualism and ecological disaster. ‘The next generation pays the price,’ he tells us. Dancers repeat a motion of a silent scream, jaws swinging, eyes rolling. In one phenomenal solo, Jasiah Marshall contorts and isolates his limbs in such a way he seems like he’s choking. At another point, plumes of smoke are pumped onto the stage as the ensemble repeatedly tries to stand up before being knocked back down. McGregor rams it home that our planet is heading toward disaster. 

Despite the hopelessness of the message, it’s a thrill to watch. ‘A Dark Crystal Odyssey’ is well-paced and full of contrast and texture. Joel Cadbury’s invigorating electronic score helps pull us through the elements and worlds, while the outlandish screen projections build the ever-changing universe. It was a little frustrating having the front of the stage blocked by a layer of gauze, making the performers always a little bit blurry, but it did allow for some fantastically dramatic optical moments. Giant rocks loomed towards us, and an eerie eyeball –  a reference to oracle Aughra in the movie – which followed dancers around the stage, made the production immersive, exciting and modern. 

Although he’s not the only choreographer to tackle the climate crisis, McGregor has put on an original and unique show. It might leave you panicking about the state of the world, but it’s a wild ride. Buckle up and let it take you away.

India Lawrence
Written by
India Lawrence


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