Of all the works in Western art that express the existential conflict of the human condition, Franz Schubert’s Die Winterreise stands as a true pinnacle. Dated 1827 and set to 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller, the song cycle’s story of an emotionally wounded and lonely protagonist is not only considered a masterpiece of Schubert’s work as a songwriter, but also as the very apotheosis of the German art song. 

Dancers of the Zurich Ballet in Spuck's Winterreise
© Gregory Bartadon

It was almost 160 years later, in 1993, that German composer Hans Zender arranged Die Winterreise as a composed interpretation” and premiered his version for tenor and small orchestra in Frankfurt. Zender’s expanded score approaches the poems in a new way, unleashing sounds that reflect an even more sinister strata of desolation. And against this remarkable music, Christian Spuck’s new ballet for the Zurich Ballet, rather than just illustrating the steps on the traveller’s journey, gives us a far-reaching, far more abstract interpretation of longing, estrangement and abandonment. 

From the start, too, Spuck’s is a highly democratic ballet, a work which employs the various gifts and physiques of the company dancers to their greatest advantage. The corps dancers are featured in soli and other small configurations as readily and with as much imagination and conviction as the principals, so the production brings new talents into the limelight. What’s more, tenor Mauro Peter’s brilliant rendering of the two dozen songs swelled the range of their emotive impact. Apart from a parenthesis of appearances on the stage, start and finish, he sang from a modest perch on the orchestra floor; he was one of the superb music-makers, yes, but also closer to us.

Lucas Valente and Katja Wünsche in Spuck's Winterreise
© Gregory Bartadon

The icy cold box of Rufus Didwiszus’s stunning set is an arrangement in white and mottled greys, the perfect backdrop to Spuck’s ever-in-motion ballet. The dancers transform themselves into attributes of the natural world, whether rippling like pools of water, floating like clouds, or showing their teeth like a vicious pack of dogs. Totemic figures also appear, as do male dancers with angel wings crafted from feathery branches, each of whom poke slow paths on stilts around the stage while a sinuous dance sequence transpires beneath them. Later, a masked Venetian carnival figure with his long, curved beak creeps around the stage periphery, and at the end of the ballet, the head of a huge antelope is hauled over that same isolated path like a sacrificial offering. Symbolists, go wild!

Emma Ryott’s subtle palette of colours for the costumes is often soft and almost seems like naked flesh; indeed, one of the most breath-taking stills is when a large configuration of dancers rises up slowly on a platform mid-stage, and some 20 nude-colored, entirely immobile bodies pose with a stilled swarm of black crows in their hands. All the while, Martin Gebhardt’s ingenious lighting – most notably, the parallel neon tubes that stir from the stage ceiling – offers an other-worldly ambience. In short, the overriding sentiment of the lyric, "Now I sit here alone and think about my dream", is pivotal and ever-present in this work, not only in this dance itself, but also in all of its superb stage fittings.

Inna Bilash and Alexander Jones in Spuck's Winterreise
© Gregory Bartadon

The performance’s musical direction was in the hands of Italo-Argentinian conductor Emilio Pomàrico, whose marvellous shock of white hair was the last thing to disappear when the lights were dimmed. A specialist in contemporary music, Pomàrico kept a handle on even the most outrageously brutal parts of the score, where the wind machine and wood instruments, raised to blaring volumes, approached something circus-like in their dashing flamboyance. These were the moments of Schubert on steroids, no holds barred. 

In sum, ballet director Spuck’s imaginative choreography for this new Winterreise shows itself the product of a very gifted hand. What’s more, it handsomely stands at the farthest limit of what modern ballet can physically demand. That said, highest accolades go to the dancers who so well paced and executed the thousands of complex and synchronized movements assigned to them. In this 100-minute programme, every living moment was filled with bodies intertwining, arching and sweeping into, around, behind and above one another. The notion of deliberate or sustained pause was more or less excluded. Yet isn’t silence also golden? Can’t less always be more? Both might have translated here into more variation from the steady feed of acrobatic convolutions, and offered us few worthy injections of visual rest.