When the Mountain Changed its Clothing, Bochum Jahrhunderthalle

Heiner Goebbels’s new work weaves surreal stories, using a 40-strong girls’ choir from Slovenia

Two teenage girls, their faces calm as a Vermeer portrait, disembowel stuffed toys with dispassionate precision as they recite Gertrude Stein’s views on the rich, the poor and the very poor. Then younger girls take the teddy-bear innards and make them float like clouds over a plastic lawn.

When the Mountain Changed its Clothing is Heiner Goebbels’s newest offering for the Ruhrtriennale, a 90-minute work built around Vocal Theatre Carmina Slovenica, a choir of 40 girls aged between 11 and 20 from Maribor, Slovenia. The piece purports to be about coming of age, about the many forms of transition in which these youngsters find themselves, about the unpredictable shifts from serenity to aggression that come with puberty. “What do little girls dream about? Knives and blood” quote the protagonists at one point – a reference to Die Wiederholung (1995), one of Goebbels’s early music theatre works.

In the end, When the Mountain Changed its Clothing is a more abstract and dissociative work than the publicity suggested. Goebbels and his team have designed a surreal world between office-furniture chill and fake pastoral green in which the choir members act out scenes of childhood and spout precocious wisdom against a background of low thunder and pictorial soundscapes by Willi Bopp. They hum, sing, stamp and clap their way through chunks and snippets of their choral repertoire, from medieval hockets and Brahms to Schönberg and Sarah Hopkins.

Much skill is displayed in this tightly crafted piece. The Carmina Slovenica (under conductor Karmina Silec) is a phenomenon in itself, with its mesmerising combination of steely discipline with exuberant physicality. The sound is often the hard-edged chesty bray we associate with women’s choirs from the former Eastern Bloc, but the young singers can shift to clean, honey-toned romanticism or glassy polytonality in the blink of an eye.

Goebbels weaves his surreal stories around the girls with the deft touch of a seasoned theatre-maker, building layers of solo and ensemble work, dialogue and interplay, action and reflection in such a way that eye and ear are constantly beguiled. But for all its dark overtones, this is a slight piece, more meditation than statement. It is a co-production with seven other European theatres festivals, and will no doubt grow and sharpen with time.

Shirley Apthorp
Financial Times (GB), 27 September 2012