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Wang Ramirez’s Hypnotic Dystopian Dream

October 8, 2018

Stanford Live

You think you’re in a perfect world, but you’re not. That’s how the Dream Dictionary defines a dystopian dream, and Dystopian Dream — an exquisitely unsettling collaborative dance piece between Wang-Ramirez Company and acclaimed British-Indian composer Nitin Sawhney — fulfills what that internet site posits and then some.

The show opens with a woman kneeling, washing her hands in a bucket as if she’s in a dream, singing into a head mic. She’s in an abstraction of a house, maybe, with a stairway to nowhere, the sky, or maybe paradise at one side or the stage. Nothing’s certain, especially when a figure in black, his face obscured by a black mask rising into a tall super-fez — a shape popular in Italian commedia dell’arte costumes — arrives on the scene, descending by wire to the rafters and then, still wired, walking jauntily down a triangular-shaped roof, or hill, or something. You want to see more, to learn more about him, but you also want him to get lost. This is not an uncommon feeling throughout the 75-minute piece — anticipation, and a certain dread.

Arriving soon after him is a woman in a multicolored silky gown, descending to the stage on a swing, moving gracefully upon arrival.

We last crossed paths with Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez when they performed their Monichichi at Stanford last March, in the Bing Auditorium’s intimate cabaret space. This production is far more elaborate, presented by Stanford Live at Memorial Auditorium with the support of Sadler’s Wells in London, the Theatre de la Ville in Paris, the Koret Foundation, and a parade of others. The crafty, niftily geometric set is by Shizuku Hariu, and video projections — yellow, neonlike squares, morphing along a wall — by Nick Hillel. The aerial consultant, Jason Oettlé has devised elaborate clip-on harnesses for flying by wire. The costumes are by high fashion’s Hussein Chalayan, and the sound scheme by David McEwan.

Sawhney shares credit with the performers for conceptualizing Dystopian Dream. His live shows and recordings overlap with his success as a dance composer, moving from Akram Kahn (who once asked Sawhney for “10 minutes of banging” for a yet to be choreographed new ballet) to many other commissions.

Sawhney’s Dystopian Dream CD, with a track list of 15 numbers for a 75-minute piece, includes singer  Eva Stone, who performs with Wang and Ramirez. She has nice stage presence, innate grace, and a pleasing voice. Ramirez, credited as director and choreographer, incorporates her nigh-seamlessly into the proceedings, making her part of the action — eventually, she becomes the other woman in a love triangle.

The music is marvelous, intermingling western and world influences for a euphonious and mellow trancey-dancey vibe. Although it’s impossible to hear most of the lyrics, Stone’s lovely murmurs give the proceedings a frisson of mystery, and hey, you can always buy the CD. Sawhney, by the way, has also produced for Paul McCartney and Sting.

Our story: Who knows? It appears to be open-ended, which is to say, it will take on a different angle depending on the viewer. Maybe we could even call it kaleidoscopic; sometimes it appears that Wang is fighting to hold onto Ramirez, sometimes they’re more than willing to let each other go. As the action progresses he sheds his black coat, mask, and hat for white shirt and black pants, the better to present his distinctive brand of breakdance: awesome back and shoulder floor spins in the service of a breakaway lyricism for his dances with Wang. As for Wang, there is no mover quite like her. She is a blend of molten liquid and steel, balletic and modern, tiny without an ounce of vulnerability, her body capable of wizardly transformations within a single beat. She got her start by winning an audition to tour with Madonna’s dancers.

When she and Ramirez dance, it’s an egalitarian undertaking, adding a fillip to the love triangle; sometimes she’s with him and jealous of the singer; sometimes she seems attracted to her rival; sometimes she doesn’t seem to care at all. And sometimes she accepts the triangle.

The uncertainty of Dystopian Dream’s action — none dare call it plotline — places it on a slippery slope, made literal at a moment when the stage is devoid of mystic shadows and magic harnesses — no flight in sight. Wang and Ramirez are at the bottom of their hill, struggling to climb, stopping partway up, sliding down again, striving to summit, never arriving.

Ultimately, a quiet, physical and emotional, settles over the stage. It’s not exactly a resolution — more like a shared understanding that has come to include the audience.

Who knew there could be such beauty in defeat, in acceptance? Clearly, dystopia is a great place to visit, even if nobody wants to live there.

Correction: In the originally published version of this review, Honji Wang's first name was misspelled.

Janice Berman, SFCV’s senior dance critic, has been a dance writer and reviewer since 1978, beginning at Newsday and New York Newsday. She has written on dance for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Ballet Review, and Dance Magazine, where she was editor-in-chief.