How to Build a Universe review – sci-fi dance-theatre show aims high but lands low

<span>The energy escalates then ebbs … How to Build a Universe. </span><span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
The energy escalates then ebbs … How to Build a Universe. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

How to Build a Universe is a high-concept show. Imagine you were one of the last few survivors on the planet after an apocalyptic event, and you wake up in a different dimension altogether, a tabula rasa ruled by a disembodied voice giving directions to build a new civilisation, hopefully better than the last. That’s the setup of this new dance-theatre show from choreographer Jamaal Burkmar.

Burkmar’s last show for his company Extended Play was the enjoyably feelgood Donuts, influenced by 90s and 00s sitcoms and the everyday life of three friends. By contrast, this one swerves into sci-fi territory. The narrator-god figure turns out to be the last exile from Earth, fumbling through trying to build a new utopia, but humans keep making the same mistakes. There’s a lot going on here: existential threats, grief, flawed humanity, history repeating itself, our insignificance in the grand scale of the universe. But it’s all happening in the voiceover (inspired by Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything) rather than in the choreography.

The five dancers are named but remain mostly anonymous, brightened up by their colourful boiler suits. The subjects of this experiment dance in organised sequences (my notes say “mechanical funk”) until they quietly rebel, then finally rid of the established systems can begin to think for themselves, to look at each other, to listen and respond to each other’s movements, to dance together. You can see the shift in the choreography and a message about community. New dancers of different ages join the group, all learning from one another. The movement style, hard to put in a box, has a casual, vernacular feel.

The energy escalates and then ebbs, but there’s no drama (that may be part of the point: no more drama!) The dance doesn’t rise to take the place of the missing creator’s voice, and the music by producer Jameszoo sometimes effectively underlines the mood, sometimes less so, especially the damp squib ending. There’s a really good big idea here and you have to love the ambition, but what could be an epic journey currently feels too small.

• At ACE Dance and Music, Birmingham, 22-23 March