Bayerisches Staatsballett: Schmetterling

National Theatre, Munich
December 4, 2023

Silent Screen and Schmetterling are among the formative works of choreographer duo Paul Lightfoot and Sol León. They sit together very comfortably. Made in 2005 and 2010 respectively, they share Lightfoot-Léon’s distinct movement vocabulary, both also coming with a strong sense of theatricality. While neither work has a linear narrative, elements of story, and in particular emotion are written deeply, especially in the first. Both were also excellently danced, the whole company meeting the very different choreographic demands well.

As its name hints, Silent Screen was inspired by silent films. The title is also a play on words, the choreography making several references to Edvard Munch’s iconic painting, The Scream.

It opens with a black and white film of the sea breaking on a grimly dark shore, projected onto three connected upstage screens. Three people stand, backs to us, looking out. It turns out that only two of them are real, the third disappearing as if by magic into the seascape. The scene immediately conjures ideas of looking back.

Margarita Fernandes in Silent Screen
Photo Nicholas MacKay

Thereafter, Eline Larrory, Severin Brunhuber and Andrea Marino lead the dance through phases of a couple’s relationship embodied by different individuals as the mysterious work takes us on a journey from that beach to a track in a snow-dusted forest; to an interior; to clouds then starry skies filled with shooting stars, before rewinding back to the beginning.

Set to the well-known Glassworks and The Hours by Philip Glass, the choreography dips in and out of scenes, not unlike the way dreams jump around. There are moments that suggest longing, sadness, anger, pain, with just occasional glimpses of happiness, although they are conveyed more by setting and context than by the movement itself, Lightfoot and Léon’s gestural dance vocabulary tending to blunt emotion.

The forest scene comes with an emotional chill, and that’s before the appearance of a girl in red. She runs. She stops. She has the beauty of innocence. But we all know what happens as we grow up.

Reality and metaphor combine. The camera focuses right in on an eye, which turns into a whirlpool. A gateway to the past, to what lies inside memories, perhaps. The marvellous visual images continue. That same eye turns into dark clouds. Then light streaming through a window. A shadow of a person passes. Who, why, is left to our imagination.

The mystery deepens. There’s an intimate duet for the bare-chested Matteo Dilaghi and Bianca Teixeira, both in white. It was superbly danced as was everything else but, again, the movement vocabulary mitigates feeling.

Bayerisches Staatsballett in Silent Scream by Sol Léon and Paul Lightfoot
Photo Wilfried Hösl

A dramatic infusion of colour comes when the girl in red seen on film in the forest appears for real in the shape of Margarita Fernandes. Later, it’s back to black as Séverine Ferrolier emerges from the audience. The train of her dress fills the whole stage. It’s a sea of material that sure enough starts to move like waves on the ocean as she walks slowly away from us into the black void.

Loretta Summerscales and Robin Strona
in Schmetterling
Photo Nicholas MacKay

It may not be without its issues, but Silent Screen is as compelling as it is enigmatic. A coming together of dance, theatre, film and music together, it’s a true choreographic gesamtkunstwerk.

Schmetterling is less engaging, although just when you feel the mind starting to wander, Lightfoot-Léon have this habit of yanking it back, sometimes provoking unexpected personal connection with what is happening on stage. Despite not finding the movement vocabulary particularly appealing, I did find it quite moving at times.

It begins with the relationship between a mother and her son, Laurretta Summerscales and Robin Strona. The title is German for ‘butterfly,’ a term associated with transience, beauty and death, all of which are visible. The sound of Max Richter’s ‘Europe After the Rain’ helps create an immediate sense that the latter is not far away.

Even with her hair greyed, Summerscales is never going to pass for an old lady but in a strange way, you do suspend reality. She does appear vulnerable and a little confused but the way she lights up when she dances with her son is special.

As with Silent Screen, Lightfoot and León come up trumps with visual inventiveness, especially with the set of a series of upstage door frames that taper towards the rear, looking a little like a rectangular camera lens; and through which dancers enter, peek out or simply cross. Unfortunately, it’s not always matched by the choreography.

Once the main couple leave, Schmetterling loses impact quickly. Other characters come and go, as do dances to a series of slightly folksy songs from 69 Love Songs by American band Magnetic Fields. There are highlights, mostly when the dance picks up on the lyrics. Osiel Gouneo stood out in a dance full of super facial expression, great turns and clarity of movement.

Loretta Summerscales and Robin Strona in Schmetterling
Photo Carlos Quezada

But while some of the vignettes are appealing in movement alone, emotion or meaning is too often lacking, and the selection of songs is too long. I certainly didn’t get any sense of embodying different aspects of human existence, as is claimed.

Schmetterling does recover once the work gets back to mother and son, however, and the end is special. The doors having been opened to reveal a huge sunny landscape, she dances freely to “Nothing matters when we’re dancing,” but fate is about to intervene. The final moments, and certainly the work’s loveliest, sees one dancer slowing drawing back the screen on which the picture is projected. Leaving just darkness, just memories, it is heartbreaking. A chapter, a life closing.