It’s a fortunate time for Schubert's Winterreise. From cinema and prose to dance, from Kornél Mundruczó to Christian Spuck, never has there been such fervour to explore the psychological, existential depths of the 1827 song cycle that not only became the pinnacle of the German art song, but also decisively shaped mitteleuropean culture. It is not hard to guess why. Schubert's epic voyage, set to Wilhelm Müller's poems, is imbued with a profound sense of individual and socio-political alienation, framed as it is in a context of conflicting and usurping sovereignties and rigid social conventions (those probably condemning Schubert's traveller), all inexorably meaningless in front of the Totentanz of death. The context of Winterreise, and its traveller without a family and without a country, echoes in our present, at analogously disorienting and difficult times.

S. Ballone, M. Agostino, C. Fiandra and A. Riso in La Scala Ballet's Winterreise
© Brescia e Amisano

Last in the line of creators comes Angelin Preljocaj with a compelling project which aims, on paper, at drawing an impressionist and physical voyage through the many sensations and emotions flowing from the Lieder. The result is, alas, quite far from the declared intentions.

Elegantly dressed in black, then in red/orange and white, the dancers graphically articulate their limbs on a dark sea of dusty detritus, presumably symbolising the remnants of a lost love whose memories, just like the debris, accompany the traveller through his journey in a wintry land of desolation, hopelessness, mourning and dark turmoil. In order to, possibly, create a more intimate, triangular communication between the dancers, the musicians and the audience, Preljocaj turns to the original (and, perhaps, the hardest to choreograph to) version of Winterreise for piano and voice. The choice is as interesting as the choreographic intent, but both remain largely unexplored. Lied after Lied, the discrepancies between the music and the dance grow, but not in a captivatingly semantic sense. Whilst the sapient hands of James Vaughan introspectively navigate through the agogic, eclectic lake of natural elements, whether friendly or adverse, and whilst a superb Thomas Tatzl, singing from a modest perch in the orchestra and only appearing on stage twice, establishes an intimate relationship between his Fremdling (the errant foreigner) and the audience, the dancers fail at animating the many counterpoints and vibrations, engaging in a tediously repetitive series of immutable choreographic patterns, that oscillate inexorably between the flimsy didactic and the sterile, unemotional abstract. The former can translate into a rather shallow trivialisation of content, and when we do enter into empathic resonance with this 'traveller of existence', it is mainly through the music, and not through the dance.

© Brescia e Amisano
Some aspects are to be praised, however. Preljocaj's work shines at times through some stunningly elegant pas de trois (one of his trademarks), an evocative use of silences and beautiful side exits. The choreography is of a collective nature, which allows the dancers to be seen as multiplied facets of the traveller's thoughts and feelings. Moreover, in the central part of the voyage, the sharp contrast between the coloured, vibrant, autumnal costumes and the lyrics effectively reproduces the tonal contrast – in spirit – imagined by Schubert himself between his own music and the lyrics and it does so in an elegant, original way. That said, the final Lied is definitely the most attuned, spiritually. In Der Leiermann, as the piano progressively descends to the pianissimo and remains in that final, indeterminate cadence, seemingly suggesting how the entire journey has been a voyage towards death, female dancers dressed in white arrive to slowly pour dusty debris onto the male dancers laying down, perhaps falling into their eternal slumber.

On the whole, unfortunately, I didn't think the choreography – of an otherwise great choreographer, whose graphic, powerful movements and interesting uses of body weight have shaped intensely emotional works such as Le Parc and Annonciation –  delivered in this Winterreise.

The evening seemed affected by a lack of precise choreographic vision, as well as an underwhelming performance: the corps of La Scala didn't seem to be breathing harmoniously with the upper part of the body, lacked precision and failed to inhabit the work on a spiritual level.

Watching this Winterreise left me with a pervasive sense of confusion. Unmoved, one witnesses the unattained. Ironically, it is what the piece is also about, on many levels... except one would have desired to see it shine through the prism of choreography, rather than witness it through its own structural defects.