“I arrived a stranger,/a stranger I depart.” The winter wanderer of Wilhelm Müller’s poem cycle Winterreise is not just mourning a destroyed love affair; he is slowly withdrawing from hope and life. In 24 ravishing songs, Franz Schubert transformed the protagonist’s self-pity into something nobler and more lyrical. Trisha Brown, working with the magnificent British baritone Simon Keenlyside, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, and three of her splendid dancers—Brandi L. Norton, Seth Parker, and Lionel Popkin—has further transfigured it.
In this Winterreise (alternating at John Jay College Theater through December 13 with two programs of Brown’s dances), Keenlyside, finely abetted by pianist Pedja Muzijevic, not only sings wonderfully; he has a beautiful presence—simple, modest, and up to everything Brown proposes. He launches himself toward us headfirst and several feet off the ground in “The Stormy Morning”; he sings cantilevered in various ways against the dancers’ upraised feet and delivers the entire “Dream of Spring” lying on the bed they have formed for him. At one hopeful point, he breaks into a small, angular dance.
Tipton’s contribution is major. At its simplest, the stage is bathed in a cool-gold gleam. In lighter moments, wisps of clouds appear on the backdrop. Shadows and surrounding darkness become potent presences. When the hero sings of his failed love and his companion the moon, and Norton slowly orbits him in a white hoopskirt sparkling with frost, her shadow obliterates his face whenever she passes. In the final song, “The Organ Grinder,” Popkin’s elongated shadow-arms reach across the backcloth toward where Keenlyside stands in the blackness beside the piano.
Brown’s most powerful motif is one in which the three dancers, lined up behind Keenlyside, form their arms into shapes that can suggest the branches of “The Linden Tree,” the wings of “The Crow,” rays of sun; they also become succoring arms that wind and slip around the singer. A brilliant irony: The hero, so alone in his grief and the bleak landscape, is always watched, caught, held.
The calm and austerity that helps make Brown’s Winterreise so moving also pervade her stunning new dance, Geometry of Quiet. It’s set to very spare flute music by Salvatore Sciarrino (played by Mario Caroli) that often suggests wind and other natural sounds. Norton and Sandra Grinberg, their white costumes (by Christophe de Menil) glinting, tilt into moves that less resemble arabesques than blades of a wind-driven stabile. Brown’s investigation of duet work is remarkable. As if Norton’s foot has become affixed to Stacy Matthew Spence’s belly, Spence slowly moves around and beneath her without ever losing that point of contact (later they wondrously reprise and complicate the duet as a trio with Todd Stone). Intermittently, the tender, pensive movement, unusually deliberate for Brown, is masked or re-framed by Seth Parker and Katrina Thompson, who run in with great hanging swags of white silk that slip back into invisibility as soon as they’re released, but whose images, like those of the gorgeous dancing, remain indelible.
Meredith Monk has been making innovative music-dance-theater pieces for over 30 years now. Like most of them, her 2001 Mercy, which received its first New York performance at the BAM Harvey, is built of small, discrete fragments. This collaboration with installation artist Ann Hamilton melds compassion with the withholding of it, and soothing voices with cries for help. Hamilton writes at a long table, with a tiny camera capturing her scraping pencil and sometimes the words she writes. As Monk faces Hamilton across the table, a camera held by Hamilton projects the inside of Monk’s singing mouth on the backdrop in blurry black-and-white. Sometimes patterns—like video technology gone awry—fill the background. Noele Stollmack’s lighting and Gabriel Berry’s costumes extend the quiet spell.
Mercy is powered by Monk’s remarkable wordless songs, startling in their range of pitch and quality. And by vivid images. Alexandra Martino, wearing a 1940s dress, sits singing in a chair and—suddenly!—every archway and exit in the Harvey lights up to reveal clusters of refugees, some carrying tape machines that emit the sounds of knocking. When they reach the stage, Martino ushers them in, as if she were hiding an entire village from the Holocaust. Monk as a patient and Theo Bleckmann as a doctor sing at each other, her gradually emerging “help” transformed as he tries to understand and repeat it. Ching Gonzalez, imprisoned in a square of light, is given a paper and pencil; he writes. But the person who brought the paper tears it up. Lanny Harrison lurks as a figure of fear, a witch, a bogeyman, who clumsily joins the ensemble’s stiff, intriguing little dances.
Perhaps the most magical moment, besides the benison of the lovely final hymn, comes when Monk and Martino, Bleckmann and Gonzalez, separate what appear to be pairs of long cords suspended from above. Pulled apart, they reveal panels of soap bubble film; as song hits the surface they ripple, and lights dance up like sparks of hope.
In The Bottomland, Doug Varone’s fascinating new work (at the Ohio Theater through December 22), the choreographer combines music, dance, video, and drama in a very different way. Part I introduces us to a community of eight, wearing shabby country clothes (by Liz Prince). As is often the case with Varone’s work, their fluid interchanges suggest impermanence and indecision; they slip out of embraces, grasping hands glance off them as they weave and turn. Behind them, on a huge screen, their images, filmed in the vast underground chambers and passageways of Kentucky’s Mammoth Caves, dance with them and against them. The country voice of Kentucky native Patty Loveless wraps them in heartbreak and the miner’s hardscrabble life.
But there are sharply direct images, too. Daniel Charon scampers about—a quick-footed dancing fool—while above him, the huge figures of Natalie Desch, Faye Driscoll, and Adriane Fang lip-synch the song right at him. Driscoll and John Besant III sit side by side on chairs and screw their mouths into bizarre shapes; it takes a while to realize that they think they’re singing. And there’s some terrific dancing: Fang, Desch, and Driscoll, flinging around in solos, are marvels of wild-legged vehemence.
We get hints of relationships and are not surprised when Driscoll strips off her dress and walks out. In Part II, the concealed drama burgeons with the harsh instrumental music of Gaétan Leboeuf. Allen Moyer’s worn little cottages, a bit bigger than doghouses, keep reconfiguring the space, along with Jane Cox’s lighting. Although Varone begins with a marvelous scary dance in which all these folks’ uglies seem to be invading their limbs, he relies on gestures, simple actions, pantomime, and mouthed dialogue to mine jealousies, bitterness, and prejudice lying as deep as the coal these God-fearing people dig. (The vicious treatment of the two Asians—Fang and Eddie Taketa—seems out of key with the first part.) Literalness is a pitfall. The complex, ripple-spreading passions that link Nina Watt, Larry Hahn, and Desch are gripping and beautifully performed; yet without words, there are only so many ways to stare and turn aside, to push and pull, to embrace and thrust away.
“The Moving Pencil Writes: Meredith Monk Sinks Her Music Into Human Archetypes of Sadness and Comfort” by Kyle Gann