In Central and northern European folklore; the mythical Sandman put people to sleep and sprinkled magic sand onto their eyes to ensure pleasant dreams. German author E.T.A Hoffmann gave the tale a ghoulish twist in 1817; his “Sandmann” threw sand into the eyes of children who refused to go to sleep. Their eyes then fell out, and were collected by the ominous figure to use as food for his children.

Viktorina Kapitonova (Olimpia) and Matthew Knight (Nathanael) © Judith Schlosser
Viktorina Kapitonova (Olimpia) and Matthew Knight (Nathanael)
© Judith Schlosser

Choreographer Christian Spuck liberally used the optical and psychological illusions of Hoffmann’s haunting version to reflect the tortured psyche of protagonist Nathanael. His father had died at the hand of the alchemist Coppelius (Dominik Slavkovsky) when he was just a boy. We watch that drama transpire, shifting back and forth from there to later episodes and the present as Nathanael increasingly suffers demonic psychoses, ultimately succumbing to Copolla (William Moore), the modern version of the man who caused his father’s death.

Set to music by Robert Schumann, Alfred Schnittke and Martin Donner, Spuck’s Der Sandmann uses every dimension present within the dancers’ personal space. They braid their own limbs into chiselled profiles, but also serve as threads in an ever-billowing fabric. We often see them from behind, twisting their arms around their own bodies, or collectively zigzagging in fits and starts. The degree of kinetic energy is astounding, and the number of angled postures is legion, but like any finely oiled machine, it all simply works.

Rather than interrupt the visual flow, the three diverse musical genres transitioned seamlessly into one another (Birgit Deharde, arrangement) and made perfect sense in light of the narrative. The Philharmonia Zürich under Riccardo Minasi’s baton was neat and demonstrative; the chimes, organ and archaic pulses of the modern sending shivers down my spine. Further, the gifted string quartet on stage in Part I − Concertmaster Bartlomiej Niziol and Xiaoming Wang (violins), Karen Forster (viola) and Xavier Pignat (cello) − as well as the solo piano on stage after the interval (Adrian Oetiker) meant those players interacted with the dancers. For example, when the intriguing Spalanzani (Felipe Portugal) first introduces his automat, Olimpia, her “mechanisms” stop twice unexpectedly, and the pianist joins all the dancers by standing and reacting in horror.

As the traumatized Nathanael, Matthew Knight was as superb an actor as he was an accomplished dancer. Symbol of youth and promise at the start, he is on stage for most of the production. To emote his profound psychic trouble, Spuck’s choreography was anything but kind: it stretched the dancer in unseemly directions; his character’s body was repeatedly pulled apart by the trauma of his father’s loss.

Fortunately for him, his friends Lothar (Christopher Parker) and Siegmund (Wei Can) made convincing attempts to bring him around. And homebody Klara (Katja Wünsche) also took his hand several times to signal her interest. A steady counter-pole to Nathanael’s burgeoning madness − even after his obsessive passion for Olimpia comes to an end − Klara stood by Nathanael until his physical abuse forced her to flee. Dressed in a navy blue smock with a little white collar, Klara nicely fits the definition of “prim and proper”. But Wünsche was stellar even in this straight-laced and largely one-dimensional role, mastering thousands of complicated steps with consummate ease.

Likewise, as the “automat” Olimpia, Viktorina Kapitonova was a talent of the first order. There have been other man-made dolls in ballet: Coppelia and Petrushka come to mind first, as does the girl in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1919 film “Die Puppe”. But here, Olimpia is at once gyrating top, circus acrobat, and mechanical contraption. To take command of such complex choreography is its own achievement; add to that the angled movements, awkwardly sustained postures, and a constant, plastered smile, and Kapitonova’s, too, emerges an unforgettable performance.

Emma Ryott’s smart costumes in sombre colours − ochre, olive, and midnight blue for the corps de ballet − has tremendous appeal. In contrast to Klara’s loose smock, Olimpia’s stiff purple and pink tutu shivered in the aftermath of her movements’ staccato.

Finally, stage design (Dirk Becker) was minimalist, but most effective: the family’s home, for example, was suggested by a single illustration of a spartan mid-19th century drawing room that was lowered to mid-stage. Unencumbered by detail, such simplicity had an eerie resonance that haunted me long after the curtain dropped. The final vignette was a case in point: With his long fingers twisting ominously behind him, the demonic Coppola approaches the sole figure left on stage at the end: the pianist tinkling out an elegiac fragment of Schnittke’s Piano Quintet no. 5. It’s only when the man in black lays a hand on the musician’s shoulder that the “playing” stops. If that doesn’t call our own mortality to mind, I don’t know what does.