set design


In the early 2000s, an architecture student from Japan visited Sadler’s Wells for the first time and fell in love with the theatre. What she saw was Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s iconic dance piece, Rain, in which designer Jan Versweyveld hangs a wall of ropes around the stage. His idea was simple, but the overall experience resonated profoundly with the young designer.

Nearly 15 years later, after completing her MA in scenography and establishing a career as an architect and set designer, she was being invited back to London by choreographers Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez to design a new work for the Sadler’s Wells stage – Dystopian Dream.

“My love for dance is never going to stop,” she tells us. “I wasn’t good enough to be a professional dancer but I was watching a lot of Sadler’s Wells productions. I was doing research about dance theatre whilst in architecture school and realised there wasn’t much out there.”

Her passion for the art form and dedication to her career is undeniable. We are speaking to her from her home in Belgium, 24 hours after returning from the hospital with her new-born daughter and less than a week after giving birth.

Perhaps it is this infectious enthusiasm that has driven her success, having worked internationally with some of the dance world’s elite, creating spectacular architectural spaces for the likes of Alain Platel’s company les ballets C de La B and Akram Khan for his duet with famous French ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem.

“The biggest opportunity I have been given came from Akram Khan. I learnt a lot from how he works with his team and how to trust your collaborators,” she says. “One day I was asked if I would like to make sketches for his production and later they said, oh and by the way, another performer is Sylvie Guillem. I was like, ‘wow’.”

Akram Khan and Sylvie Guillem in Sacred Monsters, designed by Shizuka Hariu

Her latest commission, Dystopian Dream, brings together a stellar creative team from across the world with gravity-defying choreography by dance duo Wang/Ramirez, inspired by the 15-track album of the same title by renowned producer and composer Nitin Sawhney.

For this, Shizuka has created a nightmarish world, an everyday life space turned upside down, a dystopian landscape; drawing inspiration from Escher’s staircases, the structure of icebergs, geometric shapes and even Christopher Nolan’s film Inception.

“The feeling or impression of the space is not happy or refreshing. It’s inviting audiences to the twisted and confused geometry. The gravity between wall and floor is shifted – that was my concept. The music is travelling from a really dark, lost feeling to something more comforting and then to discover something something positive, a floating world.”

Scale study for Dystopian Dream by Shizuka Hariu

3D models for Dystopian Dream by Shizuka Hariu

The process took about five months to complete, during which Shizuka made numerous sketches, three-dimensional stage plans, 16 different handmade models and copious Skype calls to her international creative team.

She is fascinated by the choreographic style of Honji and Sebastien, which often incorporates aerial work. Attached to wires, the dancers walk on walls and ceilings and propel themselves from surfaces, gliding through the air – a challenge for any designer to accommodate this functionality whilst emphasizing their movements.

But the biggest challenge, she revealed, was creating her work in synergy with Nick Hillel’s stunning projection design which helps to evolve the dream-like environment and allows for some clever visual trickery and interaction with the performers.

“Nick’s imagery is really fascinating so you don’t want to restrict his visual content by making a set design which is not easy to project onto. The projection mapping is 3D, so he can capture my set in his computer and can project on the outline but also he needs some flat space sometimes so he can show his image clearly.”

In addition to Nick’s projections and Nitin’s music, fashion designer Hussein Chalayan has been brought on board to create the costumes, singer Eva Stone provides live vocals on stage and Olivier Award winner Natasha Chivers sets the mood with her lighting design.

Dystopian Dream. Credit: Johan Persson

It’s clear that Dystopian Dream is an audiovisual feast for the senses. With the music as their starting point, the creative team have each drawn on the themes behind it. It’s an album which was partially influenced by the death of Nitin’s father as well as a feeling of despair at current political events.

“Dance has a lot of abstract interpretation for people and is flexible in terms of story lines and structures,” says Shizuka. “Contemporary expression is open for us, the creators. Evoking a mood, rather than creating a concrete environment for the play. That’s what I like. Not to make a description of a scene and inviting spectator with their own interpretation.”

Dystopian Dream makes its UK premiere at Sadler’s Wells on 27 & 28 Nov. Tickets are priced from £12. To book, call the ticket office on 020 7863 8000 or book online.

Watch the trailer here: