Christian Spuck’s bold interpretation of Franz Schubert’s song cycle, set to the poems of Wilhelm Müller, achieves a remarkable consistency of momentum in the fluid physical articulation of the mood (if not the narrative) of these 24 songs throughout almost 100 minutes of unbroken dance. Just as John Neumeier before him (back in 2001), Spuck was attracted to create a Winterreise (Winter Journey) as a visual manifestation of the song cycle, specifically in Hans Zender's unique 1993 orchestration. Zender’s ‘composed interpretation’ for tenor and small orchestra remains essentially faithful to these mighty songs but provides a refreshed musical expression and mood to Müller’s poems, which present the monologue of a lonely wanderer; and it is this inner mood that is so superbly captured in Spuck’s choreographic identity. Premiered at Ballett Zurich in 2018, his Winterreise has already achieved significant international recognition through the award of the 2019 Prix Benois de la Danse.

Lucas Valente and Giulia Tonelli
© Admill Kuyler

The ballet is staged inside three walls of a pale grey box, marbled with the feint impressions of winter foliage, set on a grey floor that hides two traps for dancers to rise up onto the stage. A slight scattering of “snow” flows from the dancers’ hands and then falls from the flies. Winter is present in its seasonal context but also as an allegory for the wanderer’s inner psychological despair; his journey was an escape from the grief-stricken legacy of lost love. The girl is the subject of the first song (Gute Nacht) where the wanderer writes his farewell on her gatepost before leaving. Memories of her float through the text of subsequent songs although Müller ceases references to her after song 13 (Die Post) when the wanderer learns that there is no letter from his beloved.

Dancers of Ballett Zürich
© Gregory Batardon (2018)

Spuck’s choreography is enigmatic rather than literal. Throughout the songs, the loneliness of the long distant wanderer is emphasised by his isolation (it isn’t broken until the appearance of a street entertainer in the final song, Der Leiermann). The wanderer deliberately seeks the wastelands to avoid other travellers and yet Spuck fills the stage with performers from the very beginning.  Some literal references may appear in imagery, such as the blindfolded woman (Giulia Tonelli) who appears sporadically throughout the work and the lifelike models of crows that are carried by her and other dancers, ending the work as a murder of crows stationed around the stage: song 15 is about Die Krähe (The Crow), which follows the wanderer, awaiting his death. The Linden Tree of song 5 (Der Lindenbaum) seems to be referenced by men on stilts who infiltrate a gentle duet, perhaps articulating the wanderer’s memory of happier days. In Letze Hoffnung (Last Hope) there is a brief appearance of two men wearing lots of hats; and in the next song, Im Dorfe (In the Village) a man wears a huge torso of a horned antelope on his back, like a rucksack, while others are frozen to the wall, perhaps representing sleeping villagers. The antelope is joined by both men and women wearing strange headdresses made of foliage. The last of these grotesque images is of an androgynous human-bird hybrid with a giant beak and claws that walks slowly around the perimeter of the stage space.

Esteban Berlanga and Rafaelle Queiroz
© Admill Kuyler

In amongst these images, Spuck’s dances build a continuing and absorbing momentum in ever-changing permutations from the ensemble dancing in unison, fast-flowing canon or in unrelated but simultaneous sequences to combinations of quartets, trios, gentle duets and energetic solos. The dance is punctuated by gestural motifs: for example, dancers’ holding palms under chins and – towards the end – the oft-repeated process of holding their right hand on their own head, while grasping the right elbow with their left hand. A leitmotif runs through the partnered choreography of women being held in fixed position with flexed feet and bent legs, as if distorted mannequins being carried to the next display.

Mauro Peter
© Gregory Batardon (2018)

The costumes – by Emma Ryott – are black suits for the men contrasting with an eclectic range of colours (light blues, greys and ochre) and styles (corsets, cloaks, short dresses and polo necks) for the women. Judging by the ubiquity of bare male chests and female legs, there were some hardy travellers in this Winterreise

Whilst several familiar dancers “spoke” to me with their movement, such as Rafaelle Queiroz and Esteban Berlanga, this is an egalitarian ballet but, despite their excellence, the dancers always played second billing to the significance of the outstanding tenor, Mauro Peter who sings his heart out for almost 100 minutes, appearing briefly onstage at the beginning, middle and end.    

This performance was reviewed from the Opernhaus Zürich live stream.