surreal expo 2020 water feature
Located in the Jubilee Park and in close proximity to Al Wasl Plaza, the 'Surreal' Expo 2020 Water Feature is half the size of a football field Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Dubai: There is a perpetual orchestra performing at the heart of Expo 2020 Dubai. Performers of this show descend meekly under watchful eyes, but once the music begins to flow, they gush forth with an arresting display of light and fire, calling even the casual of wanderers to heel. Starring 153 dancing waves of water, the musical fountain is billed as one of the iconic landmarks of the world fair.

You will hear it, as you make your way to and from the domed Al Wasl Plaza. A quiet rush of water that is somehow still audible above the excited chatter of visitors. It is camouflaged behind massive four-storey-high walls of vertical gardens, like an enclosed sanctuary waiting to be discovered. And the breeze is somehow cooler past the curved stonewalls, too.

surreal expo 2020 water feature
Parents walk their children into the 'shore' of the water feature Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Undeterred by the spray of fine mist in the air, adults and children dip their feet in the leaping water, shoulders sagging with relief when the waves dutifully disappear into the ground without crashing at the shore. To where the stream disappears and how it circles back up are mysteries visitors have yet to solve.

When fire and water meet

In more ways than one, the Expo 2020 Water Feature pushes the boundaries of a typical fountain. Instead of shooting up into the air, the water falls, and instead of just waltzing to music, it invites its age-old nemesis fire for company. Mark Fuller, CEO and founder of California-based Water Entertainment Technologies (WET), tells Gulf News the inspiration comes from the 4,000-year-old gold ring – the very piece of jewellery that helped write the lore of Expo 2020 Dubai.

surreal expo 2020 water feature
Mark Fuller, CEO and founder of California-based Water Entertainment Technologies (WET) Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

“We sort of gave the fountain its own legend. The idea was – did the forces of nature [water and fire] coexist in harmony back then during simpler times, or did they fight? This is what we’re trying to answer here,” said Fuller.

The answer is obvious when the six spires at the centre spit fires of pure hydrogen, leaving behind water that is then fed back into the fountain. Without carbon, the invisible flames offer a blank canvas. Sometimes coloured green, yellow, a bright red, the fire show ignites a spectacle that not only is environmentally friendly but complements the illuminated waves at night.

It’s magical, it’s surreal

Fuller attributes the complex tech to “magic”. The cascading waves somehow defy the laws of physics, pausing midway to reverse up the porous walls in the evening. But none of it should come as a surprise when the mastermind is also behind The Dubai Fountain at Burj Khalifa Lake, which still reigns as the largest choreographed fountain on the planet.

surreal expo 2020 water feature
'Surreal' at night puts on a spectacle of a different calibre. Spires exhale coloured hydrogen flames at the heart, while 153 waves glow in neon hues Image Credit: Supplied

“What we’ve had the opportunity to do here is create something completely different from what anyone expects from a water feature. Our thought was ‘let’s call this place something beyond what’s real’,” added Fuller. That is how, he explains, ‘Surreal’ earned its moniker. Because it made for an awkward translation in Arabic, the name mostly kept to inner circles until the day of its unveiling to the public.

Waves dance to music by Ramin Djawadi

Not many know that the ‘Surreal’ experience comes with an original nine-track album. If Fuller and his 200-member crew are the creators of the fountain, then Emmy-award-winning composer Ramin Djawadi is the maestro. In a world’s first, some soundtracks were written to the choreography of the waves, while others composed independently to allow room for creativity.

“There are two choreographers who sit in the control room underground. It’s all manual,” said Fuller.

surreal expo 2020 water feature
Mark Fuller and composer Ramin Djawadi Image Credit: Supplied

Fans of the television series Game of Thrones and Westworld might instantly recognise the unique blend of instruments weaving a fantastical universe in the central plaza. Djawadi’s diverse score, partially recorded live by the London Symphony Orchestra, ebbs through the space evenly no matter where the spectator is standing. Waves thin out during the sombre thirteen-minute piece ‘Sunset’, but make a dramatic entrance for the adventurous ‘Desert Drive’, Fuller’s personal favourite.

The visual album plays on a loop throughout the day, and if you find yourself wanting to take some of these tunes home, Djawadi’s ‘Surreal’ score is available on all major streaming platforms, including iTunes and Spotify.