Dark, bleak, magnificent. Ballett Zürich in Christian Spuck’s Winterreise

February 13, 2021

Maggie Foyer

Christian Spuck’s realisation of the 24 songs that comprise Winterreise is a deep, dark exploration of the soul. It moves the representation from the original Romantic period into a post-modern frame in line with Hans Zender’s ‘composed interpretation’ of Schubert’s piano music. The often fierce orchestration brings the universal themes of loneliness, rejection and isolation from human comfort into a harsh contemporary world while the current pandemic adds an even more potent layer.

Ballets Zurich in Winterreise by Christian SpuckPhoto Gregory Batardon
Ballets Zurich in Winterreise by Christian Spuck
Photo Gregory Batardon

Rufus Didwiszus’ setting is minimal, with each detail considered and meaningful. The stage is enclosed within square walls of smudgy grey, the unobtrusive exits creating a space à huis clos to heighten the tension. Individual tubes of neon light hang above. At times one will lower to illuminate a specific area, drawing intense focus to brilliant effect. The stage floor is unpredictable as trenches open bringing dancers into view or taking them back to the earth.

And everywhere are the ravens, sharp beaks and feathered black wings spread. As symbols of prophecy and death they add a frisson of fear. Portentous characters appear on stage then quietly disappear; men on stilts, their heads enclosed in a tracery of branches, a man with a stag’s head mounted on his back and others sporting a tower of black hats. It’s a credit to the structure that this wealth of detail, while keeping the senses primed, never overwhelms.

Irmina Kapoczynska and Lucas Valente in WinterreisePhoto Gregory Batardon
Irmina Kapoczynska and Lucas Valente in Winterreise
Photo Gregory Batardon

The dancers are magnificent. As an ensemble they coordinate like one huge body of many moving parts, each intensely focused to give a corporate meaning to the whole. Spuck uses the talents of his company to great effect with short solos and duets to draw out the different personalities.

Jan Casier in the opening scene stares out with haunted eyes, shadowed in a purple hue, Inna Bilash with Alexander Jones, dancing together but each alone, Elena Vostrotina angular and individual, while Wei Chen and Mark Geilings move with the desperation of men possessed. Guilia Tonelli’s character bookends the work. In the beginning, blindfolded and holding a raven, she quietly walks the perimeter and in the closing moments she leads the tenor, Mauro Peter, off the stage. In between, partnered by Lucas Valente, she seems to emulate the flight of the bird, supported and running on air or soaring in high lifts, an elusive and singular creature.

Lucas Valente, Filipe Portugal and Yen Han in WinterreisePhoto Gregory Batardon
Lucas Valente, Filipe Portugal and Yen Han in Winterreise
Photo Gregory Batardon

Emma Ryott’s costumes in sombre shades match the mood. The men are in dark suits while the women have a more varied wardrobe of short dresses, extravagant coats or sleek bodysuits. The women’s bare legs contrast against the dark background to accentuate fine classical extensions. But the work does not indulge beauty and suddenly the stretch of a pointed foot will twist or flex in anguish as hands claw the air.

It’s a strange world where the dancers share the physical space while operating in a private bubble of anguish. Even in close embrace of a pas de deux the dancers make no eye contact. Eyes stare out but thoughts are turned inward. Between the action, dancers stand with faces pressed to the blank walls and in a memorable tableau, the ensemble stripped down, each holding a raven, are all blindfolded.  Only in the final duet with Katja Wünsche and Matthew Knight, played on the lip of the trench does a glimpse of humanity bring warmth to this bleak landscape.

Winterreise premiered in 2018 and garnered for Spuck the prestigious Prix Benois de la Dans in 2019. It returns in live stream and is given in memory of Zender who died in 2019. It brought together Ballett Zürich, tenor Mauro Peter and the Zürich Philharmonia in an opera house sadly devoid of an audience. The camera work was excellent, and it is a rare treat to have this work available to view, but the sense of total immersion into the world of art that was afforded at the premiere is hard to duplicate on screen.

Winterreise can be watched free on www.opernhaus.ch and on ARTE Concert until 14th May 2021.