UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey at the ROH review: Wayne McGregor’s take on the cult film hits hard

 (Andrej Uspenski)
(Andrej Uspenski)

Jim Henson’s 1982 film was a stark departure from his signature muppet cheer (“Miss Piggy would not be kind to The Dark Crystal,” snarked the New York Times). Dark, direful and bereft of songs, it only gradually found a devoted audience. Heretically, I wonder if the tale hits harder in Wayne McGregor’s dance-led distillation than as the original portentous new age fable.

In Henson’s tale, the planet Thra is riven by conflict between the power-crazed Skeksis and peaceable Mystics. The hero’s quest to repair the dark crystal might also heal a natural world which totters on the brink. The intervening 40 years since release have only heightened the urgency of Henson’s ecological foreboding.

The teenage McGregor was a fan of the film. I was lucky to sit beside another super-informed fan, who confirmed my sense that UniVerse implicitly follows the movie’s narrative beats. As leaders of the two tribes die (one in a vulturous headpiece, the other concealed in a shamanic rick of straw), a young man in indigo wonders and wanders, joined by a woman in an ingeniously scalloped cape. Their mission is unclear, but their recuperative impulse appears in gentle, searching turns and mind-melding handclasp.

 (Andrej Uspenski)
(Andrej Uspenski)

In just 90 minutes, the show whirls from one imperilled environment to the next, notably via Ravi Deepres’ vivid projections. Moving from runes to a storm of spores, from ocean floor to cosmic swirl, many images are now all too familiar: a sump of dark oil, a barren stonescape, a world on fire. Lucy Carter’s lighting intensifies each, and Joel Cadbury’s score rattles with harried, martial panic. Doomy voiceovers by poet Isaiah Hull hammer home the crisis: “the next generation pays the price”; “infanticide is infinite.”

Dance isn’t always the most incisive element here, despite Company Wayne McGregor’s full-bodied commitment. In his ballets, McGregor often urges classical language towards extremity; here, the combative moves seem closer to hip hop battles or capoeira, especially in a succession of knotty duets that see creation at war with itself. Only in a closing sequence do dancers in nude-tone pants unite in fluid conjunction, struggle becoming supportive.

Several recent productions have brought climate emergency to the stage: Crystal Pite and Simon McBurney at Sadler’s Wells evoked its piercing losses while, at the Barbican, Katie Mitchell lived her sustainable values in a show powered by bicycle.

McGregor doesn’t necessarily share their bone-deep pessimism – perhaps, for him, making is hoping. Some of the strongest moments in UniVerse come when he refracts the film’s themes through his own inspired movement imagery. Bulbous, scuttling subterranean creatures; mystic hands sifting the air; a fractured body turning in on itself. Hang on long enough, and the green world may return.

Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre, to June 4;