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2003.08.25 The Guardian: All singing all dancing

All singing, all dancing

The Guardian, Monday 25 August 2003


The combination of a former athlete and a postmodern choreographer are transforming a classic melody. And it’s making audiences gasp, discovers John O’Mahony

Perhaps the most remarkable moment in baritone Simon Keenlyside and choreographer Trisha Brown’s reinterpretation of Schubert’s Winterreise comes at the end of the song Rest, when the two dancers who have been coiling sensuously around Keenlyside, rocking him gently from side to side like a pendulum, fall to the ground and twine their limbs into what can only be described as a human cradle. The song had begun with the words: “Now I first notice how weary I am, as I lay down to rest… ” In the final bars, as his character reaches his most dissipated point, Keenlyside sinks down into a bed of crooked knees, arched necks and flexing muscles, still singing Schubert’s sweetly anguished melody.

When the piece, which comes to the Barbican in London next month, was premiered in New York, this tableau drew audible gasps from audiences, familiar perhaps with Winterreise and modern dance but never having experienced them in quite such a startling combination. Schubert’s song-cycle traces the tortured journey of “the wanderer”, betrayed by his lover and left to explore the wreckage of his past happiness. Written in 1827, just one year before the composer’s death, Winterreise has enjoyed almost two centuries of earthbound concert performances; it has hardly suffered from a lack of modern-dance trimmings.

It perhaps isn’t surprising to find Keenlyside involved in this unusual production. Widely regarded as Britain’s finest baritone, he has built his reputation on peerless interpretations of Papageno, Billy Budd, Don Giovanni and Guglielmo in some of the world’s greatest opera houses. But in his youth in Manchester, he was a 400-metre runner, and he has often been drawn to unorthodox, physically demanding projects such as Robert Wilson’s highly stylised, noh-influenced Bastille Opera Magic Flute. Even in straightforward productions, Keenlyside is renowned for his activity on stage; such is his stamina that he continued performing in a Covent Garden Flute earlier this year, despite having broken his arm after falling through an unsecured trapdoor.

Brown’s appearance on the Winterreise bill is far more unlikely. Known as the “High-Priestess of Postmodernism”, the choreographer became known for iconoclastic pieces that attempted to deconstruct dance entirely, typified by the infamous Man Walking Down the Side of a Building in 1970, achieved with the aid of a mountaineering harness. Even her more conventional work in the 1980s and 1990s couldn’t have been more removed from the world of opera: angular, non-narrative, deeply abstract.

Then again, this isn’t the first time Brown and Keenlyside have worked together. In 1998 Brown was invited to stage Monteverdi’s Orfeo, for the Thétre de la Monnaie in Brussels. Keenlyside was offered the title role – and jumped at the opportunity. “At the time, I didn’t even know who Trisha Brown was,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about the dance world and still don’t. But I like using my muscles, my body. So I thought, ‘Well, this will be fun,’ and I just threw myself in at the deep end.” At their first meeting, they immediately hit it off, with Brown being particularly impressed by Keenlyside’s athletic background and by his single-mindedness: “I met him in an office and when he was leaving, he said: ‘Make me work.’ That is a gift to me. That means that I can really make demands on this guy.”


Brown’s intention with Orfeo was to invigorate what she saw as a rather staid art-form: “I couldn’t stand the lack of energy on the opera stage.” In the rehearsal room, however, she was faced with a problem: how to overcome the lumbering, self-conscious physical inadequacies of the cast of singers. “I would say that a lot of those people didn’t know that they had a body below their lungs,” she says.

Even Keenlyside found the process, in which Brown created sleek, sculptural hieroglyphics on her own dancers and transferred them to the cast, excruciatingly difficult. “I thought that I’d be able to cope with it whatever it is. I was strong and I was quick and I could jump. But when it came to it, there was absolutely not the simplest thing that the dancers did that I could do.”

Brown, however, had more faith. “Simon from my very first encounter was never static,” she recalls. “He didn’t stand in front of me and do his physical pyrotechnics; it was just something out of the corner of my eye, a turn or landing that made me think: ‘Holy Moly!’ He has a really powerful and clear-moving efficient body.” Critics who saw the Barbican premiere of Orfeo were similarly impressed: “He looked as though he had been attending dance classes for months,” noted one, “executing daring leaps, lifts and falls without, again, missing a note.”

From every perspective, however, Winterreise is a much more dangerous project. It lacks the distractions of plot and other singers. There is also the niggling question of what a modern-dance treatment could actually contribute to this very hermetic cycle. “I knew I would add something but I knew it didn’t need anything,” Brown admits. Employing the same pared-down semaphore seen in Orfeo, she has produced a range of movement that shimmers between literal reading and pure abstraction. “We improvised those forms and they came out asymmetrically. Sometimes they look like trees, sometimes like birds, sometimes just magic, like a kaleidoscope, shapes rippling through a combination of arms and heads and torsos.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the production, Keenlyside feels, is that he is no longer the sole focus of attention: “There are times when I am simply commentating on the reality created by the dancers on stage. In the last song, one of the male dancers is at the back and turning against the wall. At that point he is the focus of attention and I am in the dark upstage. It becomes a metaphor for the earth continuing to turn, irrespective of our impoverished efforts.”

The real revelation of the Winterreise experiment is the effect it has on Schubert’s music, which is flung into unusual and arresting contexts. Rest’s “cradle” scene is perhaps the best example of that. Brown had feared that it might enrage musicologists: “I worried that it might be irreverent to Schubert. In the rehearsal room, when we first made it, I said to the dancers that I’m thinking of Simon, who is going to lie down now. He’s delusional and dreaming and you put your knees up and your hands up and catch him to stop him from falling off. On one level, it couldn’t be simpler. But on another level it’s so totally absurd and surreal and radical.”

In fact, the new setting, and the vocal effect it creates, paradoxically manages to serve the score in a way that a conventional performance never could. Keenlyside’s voice, projected upwards instead of out, gives the impression that the music itself is some distant, half-remembered, impossibly ravishing dream. “Singers tend not to lie down,” he says, “and certainly not to sing at the rafters behind the proscenium arch. But sometimes a rougher sound can be very useful, or have a different effect. In this case, you can get a very white, pale sound with no overtones at all. In terms of effect, it is stronger than something rich and beautiful.”

Whatever the traditionalists think, the New York run of Winterreise, Keenlyside points out, “got better reviews and better houses than any of my concert performances”. However, neither he nor Brown has plans for a future, perhaps even more physically demanding, collaboration. Keenlyside also rubbishes the notion that he may eventually evolve into an all-singing, all-dancing baritone: “It would, of course, be convenient to say that I have developed and grown into this sort of thing,” he scoffs. “Does my body bend more? No, of course not.”

That aside, there can be little doubt that this collision of the dance and music worlds has left its mark on both collaborators. “In one way it was a relief to get back to working with dancers afterwards,” Brown concludes. “But I have been working with dancers now for 50 years. A singer is a different animal than a dancer and I find that I miss that. The singer has a certain thrum in their chest and in their neck and in their face that a dancer doesn’t have. It’s something about breath and heart and balance. I think a part of me is left behind in opera.”

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