This multimedia show, 90 minutes long, is based on Nitin Sawhney’s tenth album, Dystopian Dream, from 2015. Co-produced by Sadler’s Wells, much of its funding comes from France, where it has toured before its two London dates. The directors are the dance-makers and performers Honji Wang and Sébastian Ramirez from the French hip-hop scene, with English singer Eva Stone as the vocal member of the cast.
She appears to be the dreamer, haunted by the other two. Ramirez swoops around her, a figure from a nightmare, a dark angel of death. His first appearance, suspended by wires, is sinister. He wears a black coat and hooded mask over his head that he later removes. When Stone sees the discarded garments on a table and chair, they are reminder of his presence and absence. Sawhney’s album was inspired by the death of his father, and the track titles and lyrics (when discernable) suggest loss, loneliness and time running out.
Ramirez is joined by Wang, costumed, like him, by Hussein Cahalayan. Her full skirts reveal red underpinnings, as though soaked in blood, and she carries a mysterious gold box that sometimes emits music and smoke. The two of them move seamlessly across the set, designed by Shizuka Hariu. A staircase ascends heavenwards, a curved slide plunges downwards, vestiges of furniture are a reminder of everyday life. One of the most arresting images is of Wang and Ramirez upended beneath a table, only their upper halves visible as they dispute with each other.
Inky projections splurge over the monochrome set: spiky creatures, dense oil spills, nocturnal ocean tides. Ramirez, an expert in aerial rigging, appears free of gravity as he descends at horizontal angles. Upright on the stage, he leaps and spins in b-boy manoeuvres as though he’s still weightless. Without wires, his movements are startling, though what he’s expressing remains opaque.
Wang is quirkier, scuttling in tiny steps, scribbling with her elbows as her skirts swirl around her. She performs a jittery ritual dance to the gold music box once Ramirez has treated Stone’s unconscious body as though he’s animating a limp puppet. Although their antics are intriguing, there’s no narrative thread to follow. Sawhney’s fusion of Western and Asian musical styles, with different, recorded voices singing barely intelligible lyrics, provides few clues.
Just when you think Stone’s dreamer might be dead, she sings a mournful bluesy plaint about being left alone after a difficult relationship in which ‘nobody wants to talk about the end.’ Wang and Ramirez enact toxic encounters, with her being hauled around by him until he abandons her. Wang then attaches wires to Stone’s limp body so that she can be elevated to the flies, head and red hair dangling. Ramirez return wearing his black hood and Wang clutches the gold box as the lights are extinguished – followed by the usual Sadler’s Wells ovation from a first night audience.
According to a programme note by the Wang Ramirez duo, they have turned Sawhney’s album into ‘a fully choreographed show. What will be shown on stage is the result of our interpretation of what has been discussed, researched, felt and exchanged during our [collaborative] meetings.’ Without insider information and an intimate acquaintance with the 15 tracks of the album, the production is diverting but hardly emotionally engaging.