While Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka took only a modest lashing at its 1911 première, the reception of Le Sacre du printemps in Paris, in 1913, was to go down in history as one the most uproarious events in ballet history. Women fainted, fists were raised, and critics liberally lambasted both the score and its revolutionary interpretation. The Russian composer had taken music to the farthest limits of compositional possibility, and the archaic, brute force of the performance was seen as no less scandalous.

Nowadays, both works are widely credited as having opened doors to the sounds of the 20th century. And here, some 100 years later, a refreshingly young audience was jubilant at the two ballets’ modern reinterpretations for Ballett Zürich. Both were blood-rushing, none the least because – even to scores as familiar as these are today – each features a strong element of surprise.

Marco Goecke’s Petrushka opens to an entirely bare, black stage and a story drawn from Russian folklore. Gone, however, are the heavily embroidered costumes against the backdrop of a bustling market town; Goecke’s minimalistic approach explores a more internal environment and dark psychology.

The first male figure on stage moves at warp speed into angular, sometimes disjointed positions, his hands fluttering around his torso like bees’ wings. The wholly unpredictable element is the Leitfaden, and stays so throughout the piece. A giggle and a collective “HAH!” from the dancers come into play; the figures oscillate like automats and draw inspiration from hip-hop and mechanic-like movement, all to the pulse of Stravinsky’s score. Almost every downbeat is matched by a motion in one of the company’s many moving parts, such that the work becomes − and remains − an ode to kinetic energy. 

The plot of the ballet, however, goes close to undetected. Goecke plays more on the movement than on the narrative element. The black balloons the dancers release mid-ballet are the only relief from the no-set, no-props convention, and likely point to Petrushka’s pending death. But with clues so subtle, it’s hard to detect who’s who in the scuttle on stage: the magician (Christopher Parker) wears only a modest set of tinkling chimes; the unfulfilled wooden puppet Petrushka (William Moore) acquires a shabby ruffled collar; the moor (Tigran Mkrtchyan) is a fine dancer of Armenian origin; the ballerina (Katja Wünsche) is distinguished from the couple of other female dancers by her V-necked − rather than round neck − leotard. And after a seemingly inexhaustible catalogue of jet-propelled twists and starts, I’d have welcomed a change of dance direction or chance to catch my breath. One can watch a twitching switchboard for just so long.

By contrast, Edward Clug’s Sacre du Printemps was an epiphany. The solo bassoon had an inauspicious start, but the Philharmonia Zürich orchestra under Domingo Hindoyan recovered nicely before the action on stage began. Twelve dancers − six women, six men − appear again on an all-black stage, this time with a 4-foot white surrounding moulding. As always, Martin Gebhardt’s light design proved startlingly effective; a hard raking light gave the dancers porcelain skin, pointing to the fragile in what would soon transpire.

While Clug borrowed the detail of the female dancers’ spot-painted cheeks and long plaits from the legendary Nijinsky original, he takes completely new ownership of this ballet otherwise. The story revolves around a woman (Katja Wünsche) who, at the beginning of the spring and as promise for a prodigious harvest, is sacrificed to the God of Fertility in a hedonistic ritual. That Wünsche dances the female lead in this second ballet, too, is testimony to her magic.

At the start, the dancers’ simply-paced, close-shouldered walking in plaster-coloured costumes is not only militaristic, but zombie-like and ominous. Clug’s vast vocabulary of movement, however, goes on to intertwine bodies in figures as intricate as the initials of a medieval manuscript. The biggest surprise, though, some halfway through the piece, is the showering of (120) litres of water onto the company from above. The visual effect is just stunning: suddenly a totally new dimension of sounds – slops, skids and splashes – is added to the score, as is a poetic mirror effect, which effectively doubles the field of action for the viewer.

Like swans, the female dancers are then drawn around on that glassy surface until the music markedly changes (this goes on a little too long for my taste). But then comes a second dousing, transforming the dancers into the wet and less than enlightened figures that make their brutal sacrifice. The most poignant of all scenes is the disowning of the sacrificial victim, whose tight braids are slowly unwound before her murder by the other soggy women to mark that she is no longer one of them. Finally, given the slosh, and by the time her “pagan countrymen” slide her corpse across the watery stage, the poor dancer herself must be close to dead cold.