Christian Spuck’s colourful, uplifting and fun-filled ballet Leonce and Lena is based on a story by Georg Büchner, the renowned German dramatist and poet who taught here in Zurich briefly, and died here of typhoid fever in 1837 at the tender age of 23. Spuck’s colourful ballet is set to music by a wide variety of composers: Johann Strauss, Léo Delibes, Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Alfred Schnittke, among others. While the ballet premiered in Essen in 2008, it was first performed here in Switzerland in 2013. Its welcome revival by Ballett Zürich appeals to a broad public, but also comes at an optimal time, not only because its feel-good, sweet story is laced with visceral humour, but it also has an upbeat and positive outcome.

Michelle Willems (Lena) and Jan Casier (Leonce)
© Admill Kuyler

Given the sweeping skirts and smart tuxedos of Emma Ryott’s beautiful costumes, the simple set (also by Ryott) consists of a solid, monotone arc, set on its side. While sporting some modest vegetation, this arc serves nicely as a moving backdrop to the dancer’s energetic actions. Humour also readily enters, some of it a little slapstick: a welcome gift that previews the delights of a bright holiday season.

In the ballet’s simple story, the Kingdom of Popo’s King Peter is keen to resign his illustrious post. Yet Leonce, his son and designated successor, seems suited only to fun-loving and idleness, and often complains of boredom. The prince’s marriage to a princess has been arranged, but the poor fellow, who hasn’t met her, is hardly in favour of such an obtuse idea, so arranges to flee the country. At the same time, the designated bride, Lena, who is Princess of the Kingdom of Pipi, isn’t keen herself to marry a man she doesn’t even know, so she, too, leaves her circle and travels away to foil her family’s wedding plan. Once abroad, however, the two royals-in-disguise meet purely by chance and, as the Fates would have it, fall in love, such that the ballet culminates in their joyous wedding.

Dancers of Zürich Ballet and the Junior Ballet
© Admill Kuyler

Jan Casier, a highly accomplished member of Ballett Zürich, danced the Prince with terrific energy and precision, but also proved himself a convincing actor, showing Leonce first as aloof, a bit of a dreamer, youthful to boot, and finally, a figure indisputably in love. Spuck’s multi-faceted choreography put terrific demands on the leads, but Casier had a truly noble and engaging stage presence throughout; his gestures, playfulness and physical strength all giving his Prince a terrifically convincing profile.

In the role of Lena, Michelle Willems also gave us a strong, defiant personality, a young woman with a mind of her own, attributes which made her character terrifically likeable. Her performance was marked both by levity and refreshment; her every stage entry an unparalleled treat that often seemed even to defy gravity. As the Prince’s good and energetic friend, Valerio, Wei Chen had a pivotal, often playful, role and danced up a storm to support the Prince. The two men’s interactions and fun-loving antics were nothing short of infectious.

Jan Casier (Leonce) and Michelle Willems (Lena)
© Admill Kuyler

Spuck’s choreography is varied to support a state of agitation and, at the other end of the spectrum, the silkiness around the couple’s falling in love. Nonetheless, the entire configuration of dancers, including members of the house’s Junior Ballet, mastered the syncopation and breadth of musical genres as if it were second nature to them. The score was played by the polished musicians of the Philharmonia Zürich under guest conductor, Pavel Baleff, and supplemented by occasional pull-the-heart-strings radio favourites, including some heart-warming Blues, that were broadcast over loudspeakers. The dancers deserve every accolade for a revival of the ballet that highlights spirited profiles, physical perfection and the dancers’ true command of their genre.