There are always hiccups, imperfections, and bumps in the road on the way to innovating forms of entertainment. Walt Disney knew this, particularly as he produced Fantasia, a cinematic animated piece comprised of fanciful narratives set to famous classical music. He had hoped that this fusion would create an entirely new art form, and reinvigorate the ways in which his 1940 audiences understood cinema, music, and most importantly for him, animation.
While the film is heralded today as a classic, it wasn’t initially received that way. The cognitive dissonance that arises during the introduction of new technologies into popular entertainment strongly carries over in The Vaults’ love-song to Fantasia, Sounds and Sorcery. The production is full of Disney’s ethos of fantastical vision, and blending of forms, but is weighed down by its logistics, and the limitations of the binaural sound and 3D projection technologies that are framed as the production’s crowning achievement.
The immersive experience is set up as a series of rooms within the tunnels underneath Waterloo, some of which are live performances, some of which are set installations, each inspired by a different piece of classical music. The music adjusts in your headphones as you move from room to room – each one spectacular in its own way.
The introductory experience of laying on the floor, binaural headphones donned, to watch a visualization of ‘Toccata and Fugue’ with kaleidoscopic instruments is certainly strikingly trippy, but also underwhelmingly reminiscent of the iTunes visualizer. Lying there, I realised that what sets Fantasia apart from a ballet performance, or an orchestral symphony, is narrative. One of the joys of Fantasia is the ways in which the animated characters correspond to different musical elements, and in turn how the music conveys character, emotion, and in the case of ‘Rite of Spring’, prehistoric destruction and creation. Flutes and violins can correspond to the quick, flickering gestures of dinosaurs, while the baseline trembles like the earthquake beneath them. This complex, intricate relationship between visual and sound was lost in ‘Toccata and Fugue’, and felt muted in ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ and ‘The Dance of the Hours’.
Still, the performers for ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ (sans copyrighted Mickey) and ‘The Dance of the Hours’ are engaging enough. Their costumes are wonderfully designed, with each animal character from ‘The Dance of the Hours’ wearing brightly coloured ballet slippers, and the ostrich’s tutu representing her feathers. The crocodile is played by an electrifying aerial silks artist. The ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ is set in the damp dungeon, with flickering candles all around. It is good fun, although most of the fun is centred around being in the splash zone of the bubbling magical well.
Far and away the standout experience was in the room for ‘The Rite of Spring’, in which you are encouraged to wander through a vast space filled with gorgeously designed volcanoes that steam and ooze lava and water at designated points throughout the piece. The prehistoric world is your playground, with secret caverns and some obstacle courses. Or you can sit on a wooden stump, take in the music, and watch prehistoric time pass. The vibrantly lit flowers, mushrooms, and seasonal scenes of the ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ are equally playful and engaging. Kitty Callister’s set design is transformative; there was many a gasp as people walked into the technicolour magical garden. It’s your own narrative to weave, based on your engagement with the space.
However, much of the night is very much like a trip to Disneyland: waiting in queues for the next timed performance (complete with timers placed outside each room to notify you of the remaining waiting time) manoeuvring the crowds, and listening to recorded greetings played on a timed loop. While these rooms are supposedly without order, given that the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ and ‘The Dance of the Hours’ are live shows, there are a limited number of performances each night. It may make more sense to assign each person an order in which to view the rooms, or to encourage participants to view the live performances first and then wander among the installations at their own pace.
And although there’s a long list of stage managers and production crew and I’m sure they did a crowd risk assessment, I often wondered, as I was ushered from one squished side of the cavernous corridors to the other, about how many people were allowed to stand in these dark spaces, and whether it was really safe to have queues that could block doorways (no matter how much the ushers tried to corral the crowds).
The experience’s biggest let-down, however, is in the binaural sound. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so attuned to its shortcomings if I had not been encouraged to attend based on its standout role in the experience, but since the music is transmitted over WiFi, the reception is often poor, full of static, and sometimes cuts out altogether. The orchestral arrangements sounded rushed and smeared, as if the tempo were consciously increased in order to comply with the experience’s planned run-time. The full-bodied sound that binaural headphones are known for wasn’t always there; mass-produced, portable, WiFi-run headsets clearly aren’t quite there yet, but the potential is tantalizing.
Go with curiosity, a willingness to engage and listen, and to be taken through a lighthearted adventure, and you won’t be disappointed. For those curious about the limits of new technologies, and an immersive live adaptation of something that is so heavily based in its animated art form, there is more to ponder and analyse. What is most enriching about Sounds and Sorcery, like its original source, is the provocation to imagine what is possible.
Sounds and Sorcery is at The Vaults until September 30th. For more details, click here.