Recent celebrations of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi have monopolised scenes around the world, overshadowing other, but no less important, anniversaries. One of these is that of German dramatist and writer Georg Büchner. Büchner's brief but promising career left a minute bibliography of great linguistic richness and beauty. Christian Spuck and the Zürich Ballett pay homage to the writer with a ballet inspired by his last work, Woyzeck. A tragic story, Spuck’s choreography and Emma Ryott’s costuming and stage design build the perfect balance between emotion and form, abstraction and natural movement. They translate difficult situations and feelings, but at the same time maintain an ambiguity characteristic of real life.

Premièred by the National Ballet Oslo in 2011, Woyzeck is Spuck's second piece based on Büchner’s works – Leonce and Lena for Essen Aalto Ballet in 2008 was the first one – and confirms the choreographer's particular predilection for narration – he has also choreographed Lulu by Frank Wedekind and two pieces inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Sandmann (2006) and Das Fräulein von S. (2012) to mention but a few. Spuck seems to particularly enjoy Büchner’s peculiar linguistic richness, delightfully complex to translate into movement. Büchner’s language – ambiguous, concise, and always extremely evocative – both guides and poses a challenge, and most of the meaning is hidden beneath Büchner’s words. Additionally, Spuck has to deal with an unfinished work, as the young Büchner was unable to finish the text before his death at the age of 23 in Zürich, 1837.

Woyzeck is a mysterious drama, a fragment that laid untouched for years, and, only in 1879, could be deciphered through chemical processes. Based on a real case that occurred in Leibniz, 1821, Büchner elaborates a jealousy tragedy. The soldier Woyzeck kills Marie, the woman he loved, in a fit of jealousy after he has seen her with a new pair of earrings – a clear sign that she had an affair with a Drum Major while he had been taking on all sort of weird jobs to sustain them. He stabs her – despite them having an illegitimate child together – while in the background the town life continues its normal life undisturbed. In Büchner’s original all characters are stereotypical, thus enhancing the already claustrophobic sense of Woyzeck and Marie’s social seclusion. Spuck, on the other hand, concentrates in particular on Woyzeck working for him as sketch-like material for movement.

Woyzeck (Jan Casier, who shows great stamina) moves from scene to scene in a carousel of weird jobs that he needs to sustain his unusual family. He is the one that turns the scenography around: a modern Sisyphus, he moves a curved wall that depicts the town. In Woyzeck’s amazing opening solo, Spuck elegantly anticipates the job sequences with fragments of movement material from all of them. Besides the internal references, Spuck also plays with external ones, such as a line of drummers, closely resembling Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother (2010). Again, towards the middle of the piece, Woyzeck’s bosses seem to be rehasing the iconic negotiators around the table of Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table (1932).

Also clear is the influence of Mats Ek, another master of narrative ballets, in movement material – the angular arms and the recurring themes such as the typical ballet arms held above the head, modified so that the hands rest directly on the head – and in the relation between movement and narration, such as the use of group sequences to comment on the protagonists. Glimpses of Ek’s Smoke (1996) can also be seen in the over-sized chairs on which Woyzeck crouches after Marie’s death. With his partner, Marie (Katja Wünsche), Woyzeck executes splendid, intricate duets, often with a table as an additional spatial element. Her character is ambiguous: she betrays Woyzeck, not because of poverty, but simply because the Major is more interesting. From her perspective, Woyzeck is a good man but he is not enough to be her life-long partner. Their duet sequences, performed with their child as a witness, are interspersed with group sequences, polka and waltzes, indicating normal town life as a contrast.

With Woyzeck the tireless and world-renowned Spuck has shown he has successfully taken up Spoerrli’s role at the head of the Zürich Ballet, reconfirming the international calibre of the company. His beautiful dancers simply shine in his choreography. Besides his Swiss commitments, he also finds time to continue directing opera: 2014 will see his version (direction and choreography) of Hector Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust for the Deutschen Oper in Berlin. Woyzeck might not be your ideal Christmas fairly tale story but it is surely worth the visit.