If a contemporary ballet program could ever boast being a true crowd-puller, then this double-bill would surely count as just that. Ballett Zürich’s revival of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring featured works by Marco Goecke and Edward Clug, two of the world’s most sought-after modern choreographers, and their two ballets simply electrified the stage with precise and highly original movements.

Petrushka takes its name from the main character in a traditional Russian folktale, one of three puppets a magician encounters at a colourful street market. The Ballets Russes first performed the work that Russian choreographer Michael Fokine had set to Igor Stravinsky’s radically new composition in 1911, in a legendary performance with Vaslav Nijinsky dancing the title role.

Katja Wunsche (The Ballerina) and William Moore (Petrushka) in Goecke's <i>Petrushka</i> © Gregory Batardon
Katja Wunsche (The Ballerina) and William Moore (Petrushka) in Goecke's Petrushka
© Gregory Batardon

Gone in the Zurich production are the trappings and colour of any street market. Here, instead, Michaela Springer’s darkened stage is bare save the atmosphere created by Martin Gebhardt’s brilliant lighting and intermittent foggy effects. Leo Kulaš’ simple black and flesh-colored costuming makes the four principals look deceptively similar. Only a small attached set of tinkling bells distinguishes the magician, whose role was taken by the fine British dancer Christopher Parker. Tigran Mkrtchyan, who has Armenian roots, confidently danced the Moor; the celebrated German soloist Katja Wünsche was the perfect coquettish princess, and UK-born William Moore danced the vulnerable Petrushka, masterfully combining lyrical artistry with great physicality.

Apart from bursting at the seams with energy, Marco Goecke’s ballet bears little resemblance to the original Paris production. Rightly so, however, for this repeatedly angular and highly demanding choreography speaks a language all of its own. The body of each dancer is used as a precision instrument, his or her tight vocabulary of clicking movements simply pulsing throughout Stravinsky’s score like a battery of electric charges. From the very first pas de deux, the vast catalogue of angles and counter-movements runs at a pace that would make a brave man cry. What’s more, the supporting dancers’ huge number of gestures make a kind of calligraphy whose distinctly drawn lines are ever-changing and entirely unpredictable, making this story as riveting as anything you’ll ever read.

Excepting the variation of the ruffled gauze collar that Petrushka’s ghost wears just before the final curtain, the costumes (also Michaela Springer) are as sleek as the stage set is spare. Given the degree of feverish movement the dancers perform, though, that simplicity in backdrop was welcome. So, too, were the several of Petrushka’s poses that Goecke clearly drew from iconic photographs of Nijinsky in the role.

Matthew Knight in Clug's <i>Sacre</i> © Gregory Batardon
Matthew Knight in Clug's Sacre
© Gregory Batardon
Le Sacre du Printemps

, also written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, stirred up one of the greatest theatrical scandals of the 20th century at its première in Paris in May 1913. Even as late as 1922, a newspaper critic in Philadelphia wrote: “Apart from the excuse that it may offer as an example of the distressing dissonant extremes to which some of the latter-day composers are going, listening to The Rite of Spring might be regarded as more of an affliction than a privilege”.

And indeed, Sacre was not ballet’s usual fare until well into the century. By portraying an archaic rite of spring in pre-Christian Russia, it brings a brutal act of violence onto the stage. An innocent woman is sacrificed to the pagan god of fertility to conciliate the forces of nature. Now a century later, choreographer Edward Clug fashions a kind of punch-ball plaything from the sorry human victim; in that leading role, Katja Wünsche contorts and appeals for mercy as the unjustly accused, while the company surrounds her with Zombie-like foreboding, then taunts and attacks her viciously.

Katja Wunsche and artists of the Zurich Ballet in Clug's <i>Sacre</i> © Gregory Batardon
Katja Wunsche and artists of the Zurich Ballet in Clug's Sacre
© Gregory Batardon

Drawing on pre-Christian vocabulary, however, this pagan Sacre also includes a surprising component. Well before the girl’s sacrifice, two great swooshes of water fall onto the dancers from above, almost as a false promise of redemption. The whole company slides and skates on a magically smooth and mirroring surface for an extended period before the tides turn, and the girl’s accusers isolate and abuse her. Eventually, she is pinned to one spot by the violent crowd, her long braids unwound as a symbol of her sacrifice, and her limp, broken body finally catapulted across the watery stage into the wings.

Musically, orchestra players readily acknowledge that both Stravinsky scores harbor enormous challenges to conductors and instrumentalists alike. Nonetheless, apart from a bit of faltering by the horn, and a somewhat overbearing volume at the end of Sacre, the Philharmonia Orchestra Zurich gave a solid performance under Tomáš Hanus’s baton.