In 2004, Israeli choreographer Emanuel Gat created Winter Voyage, a short duet for himself and Roy Assaf to songs from Schubert’s Winterreise. Winter Variations is an extension of the earlier piece, and it is a tribute to Gat’s choreography and the performers’ understated intensity that the hour-long duet, in plain clothes and on an empty, often darkened stage, commands our attention throughout.
The dancers scarcely acknowledge each other directly. In what sense are they “together” at all? In the first scene, a reprise of Winter Voyage, it is in their timing. This is almost a study in composition, with fleet phrases that reflect and rotate, or slip in and out of synch, so that the men appear to foreshadow, mirror or echo each other. At the same time, it feels companionable even if the mood is mournful: there are casual touches, playful chases, jogging breaks.
The next section begins with a disturbing electronic noise in an agonisingly slow crescendo that seems to press the two men together, until their bodies are suffocatingly interlocked. It’s a surprise and relief when the sound resolves into the Beatles’ song A Day in the Life, with its references to the banality of catastrophe. Danger has been averted, but at a cost: the men separate, but are literally brought to their knees.
The following episode, to an Egyptian chant by Riyad al-Sunbati, hints at sensuality, with skewed salsa-style armholds in a duet where the partners evade each other. Then, to Mahler’s emotionally charged Song of the Earth, the two finally go their own ways. As the music swells, they end up bound to the floor, twisting, like their whole bodies were gagged.
Motifs recur throughout the piece, as if each round is casting the players different hands from the same deck. Some cards keep turning up: introversion, isolation, melancholy.