Perhaps there’s no way to reproduce the subtlety of this work in the theater today. Our stages are so materialistic, so technological, it’s hard to engage an audience in the vapors of Müller and Schubert.
The Wanderer, performed by Jessica Lang Dance. At the Doris Duke Theater, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, MA, through August 9.
By Marcia B. Siegel
Jessica Lang’s The Wanderer, based on the Franz Schubert song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, is a fairy tale ballet told in modern style. Playing last week and this week at Jacob’s Pillow, the work is a modest but intriguing spectacle about a traveler who drowns himself for unrequited love. Lang sets the dance in an open but variable space. Clifton Brown, the Wanderer, visits a mini-forest of leafless trees (scenery by Mimi Lien). The ropy roots of the trees are rearranged by a group of Others to form curving, looping designs on the floor that suggest the shores of a Brook (danced by Kana Kimura). On a high overlook, the baritone (Steven LaBrie) sings Schubert’s songs, accompanied by pianist Tyson Deaton hidden offstage. The Brook leads the Wanderer to the Girl (Laura Mead). Smitten, he pursues her, ignoring her repeated rebuffs. When a big, hearty Hunter appears (Milan Misko), she falls for him. She loves the color green, the program tells us, and he wears a green shirt. The Wanderer is desolated and eventually drowns himself in the brook. The Brook performs a dance of mourning — or triumph.
There are story dances that interest me less for their stories than for how the stories are told. The Wanderer is one of those. I’d like to feel sorry for the poor Wanderer, so dignified and credulous, but Brown seemed too besotted with Mead to realize she was giving him the brush-off. Why would she have thrown him over for the pompous Misko? Kimura’s Brook seemed to have no specific intention about the Wanderer. And who were those four characters who leapt and spun around, alternately re-routing the symbolic brook and watching the Wanderer’s downfall?
I think now that the story takes place on at least two levels. First, it’s told in the voice of the Wanderer, a rather passive dreamer who sees nature as his companion, his guide, and the uncomprehending witness to his final despair. But the narrative contains a strong undercurrent of the supernatural, with its implications of wild passions and doom. Early on in the libretto, the Wanderer looks into the brook and senses there are spirits there. The translation supplied to the press refers to “water nymphs singing” but this pretty phrase doesn’t render the Wanderer’s ominous premonition. In the original German, the word is Nixen. Nixies are water spirits that lure people to drown themselves. It seems to me that the character of the Brook is another malign spirit, who wants to capture the Wanderer for herself after engineering his disastrous detour to the Müllerin.
The sense of mystery, the powerful realm of the supernatural, is pervasive in the poetry of Die schöne Müllerin and in much 19th century art, but this dance lives most effectively in the real world. A terse synopsis provided in the program fails to explain how real people and someone called Brook could have come together with a singer who tells their tale, and the dance also takes a pragmatic tone. Jessica Lang sets the poetry of Wilhelm Müller and Franz Schubert in an impressive staged environment, beginning with the simulated forest. Nicole Pearce’s lighting changes the mood from bright to dark, with accents of the Hunter’s green. The movement is a contemporary blend of modern-dance expressiveness, acrobatic moves, mime, and a technical but unostentatious ballet idiom of turning, leaping, and traveling.
The dancers’ acting style varies: Kimura’s Brook is dispassionate, physically clear and commanding, but she betrays neither desire nor sinister motives. Clifton Brown is serious and committed throughout, with moments of joy when he thinks the Girl is yielding to him, but he’s mostly restrained. The Girl and the Hunter emote in balletic capital letters. The others in the ensemble (Randy Castillo, John Harnage, Eve Jacobs, and Jammie Walker) dance in complementary accord and sometimes in exuberant solos, but they have few individual character traits.
Then there’s the music. What a pleasure to hear this music without amplification in the comparatively small space of the Duke Theater. LaBrie has a sturdy, malleable voice and good diction. He carried the score beautifully, and managed the simple choreography Lang gave him, despite some nervous holding back at the beginning.
Perhaps there’s no way to reproduce the subtlety of this work in the theater today. Our stages are so materialistic, so technological, it’s hard to engage an audience in the vapors of Müller and Schubert. The popular opera house model of fairy tale ballet can suggest the supernatural with scrims and projections and machinery, and we get transported with lavish period costumes and sets. In severe contrast, Trisha Brown produced the other great Wilhelm Müller/Schubert cycle, Winterreise, in 2002. It was sung with minimal but affecting movement by Simon Keenlyside, accompanied by three dancers who were almost abstractions.
Jessica Lang’s Schubert seems to lie between these extremes, using pared-down stage effects and resisting naturalistic storytelling. She seems to have substituted a preoccupation with sexual pursuits and frustrations for a much more subtle but visually hard to depict psyche of inner longing and menace. Words — even poetic evocations — can’t completely convey the complexity of romanticism, but a good translation plus a German text might have supplemented the stage experience. Unfortunately, I missed most of New York Times writer Brian Schaefer’s pre-performance talk on Thursday. From what I heard, he did illuminate the cultural context for the work. But the audience seemed to be satisfied with Lang’s accomplished treatment, even though it skimmed the surface.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at the Boston Phoenix. She is a Contributing Editor for the Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims–The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983-1996 Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.