UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey at ROH Review: Wayne McGregor’s interpretation of the cult film hits the spot
Henson’s 1982 film was a marked departure from his signature Muppet cheer (“Miss Piggy wouldn’t be kind to the Dark Crystal,” scoffed the New York Times). Dark, terrible and without songs, it only gradually found a loyal audience. Heretically, I wonder if the story hits harder in Wayne McGregor’s dance-like distillation than it did in the original sinister New Age fable.
In Henson’s story, the planet Thra is rocked by conflicts between the power-hungry Skeksis and peaceful Mystics. The hero’s quest to repair the dark crystal could also heal a natural world that is on the brink. The 40 years since publication have only heightened the urgency of Henson’s ecological premonitions.
Teenage McGregor was a fan of the film. I was lucky enough to be seated next to another super-informed fan who confirmed my feeling that UniVerse implicitly follows the film’s narrative rhythms. As the leaders of the two tribes die (one wearing a vulture headdress, the other hidden in a shamanic pile of straw), a young man in indigo wonders and wanders, accompanied by a woman in an intricately corrugated cloak. Her mission is unclear, but her regenerating impulse is revealed in gentle, exploratory twists and mind-melting moves.
In just 90 minutes, the show whirls from one endangered environment to the next, notably through the vivid projections of Ravi Deepres. From runes to a sporestorm, from the seabed to cosmic eddies, many images are now all too familiar: a swamp of dark oil, a barren landscape of stone, a world ablaze. Lucy Carter’s lighting intensifies, and Joel Cadbury’s score vibrates with harried, martial panic. Poet Isaiah Hull’s somber voiceovers spell out the crisis: “The next generation is paying the price”; “Infanticide is infinite.”
Despite the great commitment of Company Wayne McGregor, dance is not always the most succinct element here. In his ballets, McGregor often takes classical language to the extreme; Here the combative moves seem more akin to hip-hop battles or capoeira, particularly in a series of gnarly duets where creation is at war with itself. It is only in a closing sequence that dancers in bare pants unite in a fluid union and struggle to become supportive.
Several recent productions have brought the climate emergency to the stage: Crystal Pite and Simon McBurney at Sadler’s Wells commemorated the piercing losses, while at the Barbican Katie Mitchell lived out her sustainable values in a bike-powered show.
McGregor doesn’t necessarily share her deep-seated pessimism – perhaps doing is hope for him. Some of the strongest moments in UniVerse come as he breaks the film’s themes with his own inspired motion imagery. Bulbous, scurrying subterranean creatures; mystical hands sifting the air; a broken body turning in on itself. Wait long enough and maybe the green world will return.
Linbury Theater at the Royal Opera House, until June 4; raw.org.uk
https://www.standard.co.uk/culture/dance/universe-a-dark-crystal-odyssey-wayne-mcgregor-royal-opera-house-linbury-theatre-b1081076.html UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey at ROH Review: Wayne McGregor’s interpretation of the cult film hits the spot