Music by Franz Schubert, choreography by Trisha Brown
Theatre Royal, Newcastle
Schubert himself called the 24 songs in his song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey) "frightening", and this journey through a winter landscape, which is also a journey through despair, cries out for some kind of dramatic treatment. Not a play - although there is the material there to inspire a play - but something which doesn't displace the music from its central position. Dance seems the obvious way forward and, when I heard that baritone Simon Keenlyside had teamed up with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, I knew this was something I had to see - and something that might well interest visitors to the BTG.
I imagined Keenlyside singing, perhaps on one side of the stage, and the dancers filling the rest. However, given that Brown is regarded as the one of the leading post-modern choreographers, I was hard-pressed to imagine the relationship between choreography and the songs.
My imagined scenario was totally wrong, although the impression on first seeing the stage suggested otherwise: a bare stage with a piano downstage right. But Keenlyside is not separated from the dancers, but is rather one of them.
As befits her post-modernist approach, Brown's choreography is sparse and spare, relying heavily on gesture and integrating with all other aspects of the performance. It appears that the whole thing was conceived as a single entity with, for example, the movement being as much dependant on the lighting as, more usually, the lighting depends upon the movement. The opening song Gute Nacht, for example, establishes a relationship between dancer (Brandi L Norton) and singer through the interplay between their shadows, whilst in Will o' the Wisp (no. 9 Irrlicht), the dancers move through very tight beams of light which momentarily illuminate just part of their bodies - a shoulder, the lower back.
Movement ideas recur in different contexts: a complex interweaving of the arms of dancers (with the singer on occasions), as they stand or kneel behind each other, represent a tree (no 5, Der Lindenbaum) or a crow (no. 15, Die Krähe), and, with a change of dynamic, appear again in Rest (no. 9, Rast).
At times the movement is quite representational: in Die Wetterfahne (no. 2, The Weathervane), for example, the dancer spins just like the storm-blown vane in the song, and in Der Wegweiser (no. 20, The Sign-Post), the dancers' arms become the sign-post.
If your experience of modern dance is based, as mine is, on the likes of Christopher Bruce, Wim Vanderkeybus, Richard Alston or even Pina Bausch, then Trisha Brown's work takes a little getting used to, but when the adjustment is made, you do feel the effectiveness of the work. It is, perhaps, more intellectual than visceral in its impact, but, when combined with the superb singing of Simon Keenlyside, it does take you on the journey through the drak night of Schubert's soul.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan