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Trisha Brown Dance Company

'Winterreise'

by Holly Messitt

July 31, 2003 -- John Jay College Theater, New York

As I watched Trisha Brown’s choreography to Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise,” the song cycle Schubert wrote to Wilhelm Müller’s poetry, I couldn’t help but wonder at how amazingly well these two opposing temperaments worked together. The piece, which featured baritone Simon Keenlyside accompanied by pianist Pedja Muzijevic, first premiered at John Jay College Theater last December and was brought back last week for Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival.

Schubert’s highly emotive music epitomizes the German Romantic sensibility. Equally Romantic is the text, which uses the figure of a lonely, wandering young man to represent an internal search for the self, the link between the human and the divine. In opposition to this searching emotion and driving individuality, Trisha Brown’s reputation lies with the more stoic postmodern dance. So, it’s surprising to see the music and the movement work together at all. Though “Winterreise” is not Brown’s first foray into narrative and operatic choreography, this piece does demonstrate how the emotiveness of the music and the abstraction of the movement compliment each other.

With lines such as “Frozen drops fall/ from my cheeks,” and “every river will reach the sea,/ every sorrow, too, will reach its grave,” an overly-literal dramatization of the text risks sending the piece into melodrama. Instead, Trisha Brown’s movement adds enormous depth and power to Shubert’s work. At times she works to reflect the text, as when Mr. Keenlyside positions himself in front of the three dancers, Brandi L. Norton, Seth Parker, and Lionel Popkin, as they all raise and intertwine their arms to signify the motion of the Linden tree. In other instances she works with the mood of the music. At one point, the dancers cradle Mr. Keenlyside with their shins. They lie on their backs head-to-toe and bring their legs into a tuck to support Mr. Keenlyside as he reclines back and lets them bear his weight.

In “Good Night,” the first song of the cycle, Brown relies on just a word, “shadow,” as in “A shadow thrown by the moon/ is my companion,” to stimulate the movement. Playing with Jennifer Tipton’s inspired lighting, Mr. Keenlyside steps forward on the stage to create an overpowering shadow that looms over a smaller shadow cast by Ms. Norton who circles him in the character of the wanderer’s lost lover. Equally impressive shadow play appears at the end of the cycle in “The Organ-Grinder.” Here Mr. Popkin crosses the back of the stage. He moves slowly and slightly, but when he raises his arm both his arm and his hand become distorted in the shadow, emphasizing the organ grinder’s “numb fingers.” The old man’s suffering in turn compels the young man to identify with his suffering and ask, “Strange old man,/ shall I go with you?/ Will you grind your hurdy-gurdy/ to my songs?”

The music alone has satisfied audiences for over 150 years, and some in the audience seemed unprepared to accept the change in performance style fully. Yet I found that the intuitive nature of the movement enhanced the overall effect of the music. The action happens very slowly, at about the same speed that the power of Mr. Keenlyside’s voice slips quietly into our consciousness.

 

Edited by Jeff

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