Over the River and Through the Woods
Vocal music and dance make curious bedfellows. In many ways, the two work against each other. Words activate our imagination, drawing us inward, while dance, at its best, stimulates a sense of recognition and empathy toward something outside of ourselves. When music, words and movement are combined, our minds are pulled in different directions.
Some choreographers can pull off the trick of weaving together these disparate energies to make a satisfying whole. In his Socrates (2010), the modern-dance choreographer Mark Morris managed somehow to enhance our feeling for Plato’s texts and Satie’s music. The words came alive in a way they might not if one simply read them on the page. Morris’s fluid, bobbing movement was a perfect match for the bubbling contours of Satie’s never-ending melodic line. Suddenly, we found ourselves floating in a Greece of the imagination. Every element was augmented by being part of the same whole. (His more recent Acis and Galatea was less successful in this respect.)
In her new The Wanderer, a setting of Schubert’s song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, the choreographer Jessica Lang doesn’t quite achieve the same effect, though there are moments when she comes close. The work, presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “Next Wave” festival, was performed in the intimate – some might say cramped – blackbox theatre known as the Fishman Space. The audience sat on two sides of the square stage. The singer, baritone Steven LaBrie, stood at first on a ledge at mezzanine level, with the pianist Tyson Deaton. Later, he descended to the main stage, as if drawn into the drama that he was describing.
Ropes hung from the flies, arranged in tree-like formations that could be manipulated by the dancers into jump ropes, the spokes of a mill wheel or a sinuous arc like the curve of a stream. (The visual concept, by Ms. Lang, was executed by Mimi Lien.) The eight dancers, clad in gray, beige, or green rehearsal wear (by Bradon McDonald) entered and exited through a curtained-off doorway at one corner of the space. The pared-down, unaffected setting was a good visual match for the almost internal world created by Schubert and the poet Wilhem Müller. Even so, the staging took some time to settle into the right tone.
Lang’s ballet-infused choreography at first seemed too vigorous, too busy and too self-consciously presentational an accompaniment for Schubert’s robust, deliberately plainspoken melodies. The hero of Müller’s first-person poems is an everyday fellow, a young laborer in search of humble satisfactions: the pleasures of nature, honest work and pure, idealized love. His presence is more earth-bound than spry. As he wanders through a forest, he comes across a mill and finds work there, falls in love with the miller’s daughter, only to be rejected by her in favor of a virile hunter clad in green. Like Schubert’s Winterreise, the cycle ends in despair. The miller’s suicide, depicted by a dancer (Kirk Henning) held aloft by four others – struggling as if against a strong current, then slowly lowered to the floor – is one of Lang’s most stirring images.
The ballet-trained performers – all lovely dancers – tended to over-project their emotions, making them look put-on, insincere. They could have taken a pointer or two from the relaxed delivery of LaBrie, who watched the goings-on with concern and interest, and moved with a casual grace that radiated humanity and thought. (Singers, particularly operatic singers, often get a bad rap for their overstated or ungainly stage presence, but LaBrie’s quiet intensity belied this shopworn cliché.) His descent to the stage, where he circulated among the characters in his own story, gave the work the gravitas it had lacked up to that point.
It was only with the later poems, when the song cycle took a darker hue, that Lang’s choreography eased and snapped into focus. She found more ways to echo words and images from Müller’s poems, the withered flowers evoked by the dancers hands and bodies, the plaiting of the ribbon in the miller-daughter’s hair, the burial of the protagonist under a pile of rope. The “wanderer,” played by Kirk Henning, was more convincing in heartbreak – which he showed through the contortions of his body – than in happiness. Kana Kimura, as a kind of water-nymph in green, took on a greater role, both protecting him and luring him to his death. By the end, the bridge linking the activity onstage to Schubert’s world had been crossed, and the words and images made the impact we had been hoping for from the start.