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(c) Suzanne Frost

Sounds and Sorcery

21 July 2018 Suzanne Frost

The Vaults are transformed! Gone is the grotty central tunnel with its damp and humid caves branching off. Through a newly created side entrance you enter a space that more resembles an avant-garde art gallery, all neon lights and white concrete walls. The visitor is immediately greeted by a soundscape of whispers and mysterious chimes, sensitising the ears for what is to come. Though there is much visual magic to marvel at over the next 90 minutes, it is the acoustic that ties everything together. The earphones you are given before you enter will be your guide through the maze of doors and discoveries.

Instrument installation in The Vaults presents Sounds and Sorcery celebrating Disney Fantasia. CREDIT Jason Yeoman

With Fantasia, (1941) Walt Disney wanted nothing less than to make the audible visible, and heighten the storytelling quality of classical music. As a first taste of things to come, you are invited into an anteroom where you lie down on your back to look at three giant disks on the ceiling that awaken with projections. Just like in the film, J. S. Bach’s astounding toccata and fugue in D minor serves as an overture.

Designer Kitty Callister (who we chatted to before opening night) created a kaleidoscope of rotating musical instruments that uses the technique of hypnosis to relax your mind, pull you in and heighten your senses. Apparently synaesthesia (the merging of senses, so you can “see” music and “hear” colours) is a rare gift, but watching the projection together with Bach’s majestic masterpiece it becomes obvious that music can be brown or gold, it can be liquid, hard and shiny like diamond or sparkle like fireworks. It’s a shame, however, that the new recording coming from your designated iPod is somewhat metallic and flat in sound. Digital music may have gotten rid of cracks and noise, but in the process it’s also eliminated warmth and depth.

 (c) Suzanne Frost

Wearing headphones makes you withdraw into your own body, it is a lonely experience that further sensitises the brain to sensory stimulation. With this new hyper alertness, you are invited to enter the Vaults (that may look different but still hold the familiar damp smell) and explore at your own leisure. Sounds and Sorcery is a celebration of Disney’s film, a theatrical re-interpretation, that finds its own aesthetic away from the original animations.

Some rooms are installations you can experience at your own pace, guided by the binaural technology. Others have live performances you need to catch at the right time. In keeping with Disney’s original order, the Nutcracker Suite rooms are perfect as a first adventure. In Fantasia, Tchaikovsky’s ballet suite has been reimagined as nature going through the seasons.  To the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, man-sized flowers shimmer with coloured light, and little mushrooms bob to the sound of the Russian Dance. 

(c) Suzanne Frost

You find yourself in a mysterious forest, bark soft under your feet, small rivers flowing, wooden benches and tree trunks invite you to sit and observe, little bridges call to be explored and find further hidden rooms. Disney let flowers float down a river to the Dance of the Mirlitons - here, footage of real flowers - lilies, roses, less cutesy than Disney’s - fall into a lake bubbling over with real soap bubbles. The 2D of the projection meets the 3D of our actual world in an optical effect that seems like the screen is exploding into the room. Disney’s fairies that skate on a frozen lake to the Waltz of the Flowers are here only in sudden flashes of light leaving swirly patterns on the ice.

 
The Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda, in which Disney’s mocks the mannerisms of classical ballet with animals, is performed by live dancers, their costumes and movement quite cleverly hinting at the ostrich, the hippo and the crocodile, but without any explicit animal masks. The ostrich is particularly successful at imitating the stalking bird-ballerina’s movement, but the choreography lacks the impeccable musicality of the Disney animations, where every musical accent was perfectly captured.
 
This succeeds to much greater effect in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which-befitting for the 90th birthday of Mickey Mouse - is the most wonderfully executed interpretation of the original film, where flickering candles and a bubbling cauldron drew gasps and giggles from the audience. Prepare to get royally soaked in the front row though!

(c) Suzanne Frost

Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps is a challenging, chaotic piece of music and while Disney used it to illustrate the entire process of evolution and the big bang, the Vaults concentrate on one scene, the volcano, to create a sort of playground environment where you can crawl through tiny caves, cross a section of cracked moving tectonic plates and navigate a field of rubble by holding on to a climbing wall.
 
The Night on Bald Mountain has always been a bit of a weak finale, and here, although the monster is cleverly blurry giving your imagination space to fill it with your own fears, the three creatures are almost too human to be sufficiently scary. However, as the church bells ring an end to the devilish doings and Schubert’s Ave Maria sounds in the distance, the projection curtain rises, revealing a forest of trees behind it, silently inviting you to step right into the movie and become one of the silhouetted figures yourself. If you, like this humble critic, have spent half your childhood watching the dancing hippos and assiduous broomsticks on repeat until the old VHS tape broke, being able to walk right into your favourite childhood movie is a transcendental moment. Without a comprehensive super-fan’s knowledge of the source material though, the nostalgia and whimsy might not come across as successfully.

(c) Suzanne Frost

The experience at the Vaults is impossible to define. It is not theatre, not concert, not art installation – it is a multimedia, multi-sensory playground that truly deserves the word immersive. It is incredibly ambitious, as ambitious as Disney was in his quest to make challenging classical music accessible and visible. It succeeds in walking that fine line between artsy and educational, yet cute and fun, merging a very adult aesthetic with Disney’s exuberant joy. An inspired homage to the great dreamer Walt Disney, and a feast of the most futuristic technology in service of theatrical magic and human imagination.
 
Sound and Sorcery – Celebrating Disney’s Fantasia is at the Vaults 19 July – 30 September.  Tickets £38.
 
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