Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s romantic Nutcracker Suite, which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892 is perhaps the most recognizable and beloved ballet music of all time. Now, for an entirely new version of the ballet, choreographer Christian Spuck said that he wanted to get away from the sugar coating and straightforward staging of the traditional production, and was more interested in exploring the darker realms and fantasy of the ETA Hoffmann narrative that inspired Tchaikovsky’s suite.

Yen Han, Matthew Knight (Clowns) and Willian Moore (Nutcracker) © Gregory Batardon
Yen Han, Matthew Knight (Clowns) and Willian Moore (Nutcracker)
© Gregory Batardon

For The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Spuck pulled out all the stops in Zurich, signing no fewer than 80 dancers to the 2-act ballet’s various vignettes, adding a good number of character roles and a considerable comic component. But he missed the mark on anything rattling, setting a stage instead for what felt more like a glorified sequence of Vaudeville acts. While there were indeed some exceptional performances, the ballet overall seemed more a mix of soap and sweetmeats than anything elemental or profound.

The action in Spuck’s work takes places in an old theatre. It didn’t go unnoticed that when in Act 2, the lights came on for the music hall on stage, strings of lights around our own balconies also lit up. If “all the world’s a stage” is the underlying message, they we were all party to what would “play on.”  It was, of course, easy to like the clever updates the roles had been assigned: Fritz zooms around on a skateboard; his sister Maria dances only in slippers; the holiday mood so crucial to the original is imparted here by a single, monumental Christmas tree bulb that hovers in a recess at the right of the stage. Overall, though, Rufus Didwiszus’s stage design is fairly modest and discrete, which was welcome in light of the colourful compote of dancers.

Dancers of Zurich Ballet and the Junior Ballet in <i>The Nutcracker and the Mouse King</i> © Gregory Batardon
Dancers of Zurich Ballet and the Junior Ballet in The Nutcracker and the Mouse King
© Gregory Batardon

As the Princess Pirlipat, Giulia Tonelli simply defined the refreshment and effervescence of the contemporary dance genre. Even her most demanding movements came across like cream, and she epitomized spontaneity and enthusiasm in her portrayal. As the more down to earth Marie, Michelle Willems also rose to a demanding and concentrated performance. As the Lead Flower, the pink-haired Anna Khamzina gave as convincing a seductive acting sequence as she did a dance interlude. Further, Yen Han and her counterpart Matthew Knight took the roles of blatantly awkward, thus highly amusing entre-actes with bravour.

Overall, Buki Shiff’s lavish costuming was a feast of color and detail. As the Mouse Queen, Mélissa Ligurgo’s performance was boosted by a transparent, fragile hooped skirt that had an edge of something royal, but gave every freedom to her dynamic movements. Yet two creative choices got in my way, however. First, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Viktorina Kapitonova – through no fault of her own – had had her tutu reduced to a countertop for dozens of muffins with thick sugar coatings, which stage direction saw her probing, then licking her fingers over repeatedly, a gesture that was funny the first time only. Sadly, too, as the infamous Drosselmeyer, Dominik Slavkovsky was subject to the huge swathe of a voluminous back cape that virtually concealed him on stage. He twirled like a dervish – the cape’s tails chopping every which way – but his performance remains in my memory as simply a bundle of rotating black under the mop of a frizzy white wig.

Giulia Tonelli (Princess Pirlipat) and dancers of the Zurich Ballet and Junior Ballet © Gregory Batardon
Giulia Tonelli (Princess Pirlipat) and dancers of the Zurich Ballet and Junior Ballet
© Gregory Batardon

As the Nutcracker, William Moore’s performance was a feat of faultless engineering: his stuttering, wooden movements as convincing as I’ve ever seen in the role. What’s more, he seamlessly moved through the three roles of the Nutcracker, Prince and Drosslemeyer’s nephew, giving a different colour to each.

Paul Connelly’s musical direction of the Philharmonia Zürich was also superb; he moderated the orchestra’s unusually large configuration to the dimensions of the house, and went easy on the yeast of Tchaikovsky’ thick, rich score.

Alexander Jones and Anna Khamzina (Lead Flowers) © Gregory Batardon
Alexander Jones and Anna Khamzina (Lead Flowers)
© Gregory Batardon
Two musicians also stood out commendably; first, Ina Callejas, whose accordion figured in a sentimental and newly-invented vignette that both launched and finished the evening; and keyboard player Yulia Levin, whose celesta marked some of the score’s most familiar music, and who was perched in a niche just above the orchestra floor to be more widely visible.

In sum, while this major production was indeed novel, I found the focus more on the stuffs of spectacle and show, and far less on tapping the unforged possibilities of dance that we usually see in Christian Spuck’s choreography. Meant to be a probe of human emotion and fantasy, the performance stood more as a peppy parade of the comic and colourful, a catalogue of repetitive movements, and very little about it was unconventional.

***11