Winterreise, Barbican, London

Murdered by a dance of death
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The Independent Culture

What is it about Schubert's Winterreise that directors, choreographers and filmmakers are hungry to reinvent? Why this song cycle? Because that's what it is - a cycle of songs, pure and simple. Well, not so simple, actually. And there's the key. The way in which the songs are ordered presents us with a narrative of sorts - a stream of consciousness, a drama of the mind. One man's broken heart, one man's torment, one man's bleak winter journey.

The words tell us why and wherefore, to a point; the music unlocks the subtext and triggers the emotion, to a point. Still, a great deal is left unsaid for the listener to ponder. And I say listener because there is nothing quite like the still, strange formality of a recital stage to concentrate the minds of singer, pianist, and audience alike. To add yet another dimension - to probe the narrative in "visual", physical terms - seems to me an unnecessary violation of the work's "inner" life. As I've already implied, others have tried. Choreographer Trisha Brown is the latest not to succeed.

Brown uses her three dancers - Brandi L Norton, Seth Parker, and Lionel Popkin - as a physical extension of our protagonist, Simon Keenlyside. They are, if you care to dig deep into the elusive subtext of the penultimate song, his three "phantom suns". Their arms (which is where the greater part of Brown's choreography is concentrated) become almost indistinguishable from his own, snaking from behind and around his body like some animated Eastern deity. The dancers' bodies shadow his own, and white stage and white backdrop reflect the bleak white wintry lighting of Jennifer Tipton, who casts her own shadows - tellingly, in the opening minutes, where the illusion is of Keenlyside holding his erstwhile lover's hand, when, in fact, they are some distance apart. Another nice touch is the nod to period in the hooped-skirt frame the girl wears in these opening minutes.

Sometimes, Brown uses her dancers to underline the text in uncomfortably literal ways: they are a linden tree, they are signposts, they are a black crow. They are distracting. They are superfluous. So little of the movement illuminates or enhances the feeling inherent in the songs. I quite see why Brown chose to err on the side of abstraction, leaving the emotion to the exclusive domain of voice and keyboard. But the bodies are already an intrusion, so why the detachment?

In one respect, Brown has hit upon something. The poet's restlessness - the peace that is denied him - is conveyed in the hyperactivity of the movement. The "rest" he craves is, of course, death. Or rather his soul craves it, and his body resists. So Brown has him literally kept from the horizontal through the support of his alter egos, and in one brief but memorable moment his head is held in Death's embrace as he looks longingly into its eyes. At this point, Brown should surely have withdrawn her dancers, and pointedly left Keenlyside alone for the final songs. "I should feel happier in the dark," he sings, as one by one his trinity of suns fade. In the final song, he does meet Death, the "organ grinder". But Brown persists with her grotesque shadowplay, when surely the figure of Death belongs only in the imagination.

Would the excellent Simon Keenlyside - so supple physically and vocally - have been moved to a greater inwardness had his body been confined to the still centre of a recital stage? Would he have found a greater range of vocal colour and atmosphere in that context? I think so. I wanted to isolate both him and his excellent pianist, Pedja Muzijevic. You can add two extra stars for their work, but Trisha Brown's concept left me cold, if you'll forgive the pun. I, for one, wanted more, and longed for less. More spirit, and less pretension.