In all his ballets, the Romanian-born choreographer Edward Clug crafts unusually athletic but poetic works, dances that reveal and play upon the foibles and ironies of the human condition. And if this new Faust is an ambitious undertaking on his part, it is because as a truly narrative ballet, dance-theatre, if you will, its reputation relies on much more than movement alone. Over the centuries, the legend of the soul-searching scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the elixir of youth has been reinterpreted many times in literature and theatre, but rarely in dance. That said, Clug stands among pioneers.

Michelle Willems (Gretchen) and Jan Casier (Faust) © Gregory Batardon
Michelle Willems (Gretchen) and Jan Casier (Faust)
© Gregory Batardon

Inspired by Goethe's legend, the new production has a spectacular opening: a hooded flock of dancer-blackbirds lies prostrate on the stage, each one sporadically twitching its huge wings while the elderly, crippled Faust shuffles by with a huge pile of books stacked in his wheelchair. The lighting is dim, an upstage video projection of a blustering dark sky moves like the sputters and starts of death itself. Moments later, the Mephisto grimaces menacingly as he crafts a black balloon poodle, the token of impending doom that he passes off casually to the old man. But much of Act 1 circulates around the dance dialogue of Faust and the Devil inside a huge glass box placed centre stage in Marko Japelj's set design. While the containment suggests helplessness, it also offers a host of possibilities for contorted, even seemingly “stuck” postures, the creepiest of configurations, and acrobatic feats that would put many a circus act to shame. 

William Moore (Mephisto) © Gregory Batardon
William Moore (Mephisto)
© Gregory Batardon

As Mephisto, William Moore transforms the crooked elder into a young and virile man, and the scene in which he marvels at his work is unforgettable. He tests the functions of the arms and legs, almost giggling at his success, his gestures making a sense of wonder palpable. As a dancer, Moore also gave us the duplicitous character of the devil; he could be infinitely playful and charming, then turn around to seem as ruthless as a beast, his eyes almost turned around in their sockets.

As Faust, Jan Frasier, also showed a terrific command of the complex twisting and spiralling of Clug’s choreography, and made the transformation from crooked old scholar to Promethean new creation with aplomb. He even mastered standing on a ten-metre long, narrow platform that Mephisto used to whisk him around the stage in a huge, rocky circle. And the innocence he showed in his courtship of the unsuspecting Gretchen – the girl who takes his fancy and bears his illegitimate child – was close to endearing. 

William Moore (Mephisto) and Jan Casier (Faust) © Gregory Batardon
William Moore (Mephisto) and Jan Casier (Faust)
© Gregory Batardon

Cast here as a cleaning woman who mops up the rotating platform, Michelle Willems' Gretchen was sylph-like and youthful. But in showing her keen interest in material things, a rather fiddly scene in which she toys with a long pearl necklace compromised her character’s innocence, and somewhat trivialized her person. In Act 2 Willems could draw on more emotive powers: Gretchen remorsefully drowns her illegitimate baby. Goethe’s infanticide was a river drowning; Clug’s was a bucket of water poured into the hooded baby carriage, an act whose immediacy was horribly gripping.

In lesser roles, Viktorina Kapitonova danced Gretchen’s frivolous neighbour Marthe with great gusto, and the two women packed into a single dress – opposite the duo-pack of conjoined Faust and Mephisto – was done ingeniously. As the Angel who tried to mitigate Gretchen’s damage, Giulia Tonelli was as light on her feet as a true celestial being. Alexander Jones made a handsome Valentin, defending his sister by wielding a sword with alacrity, often, it seemed, in the posture of a noble Wagnerian. 

Viktorina Kapitonova (Marthe) and Michelle Willems (Gretchen) © Gregory Batardon
Viktorina Kapitonova (Marthe) and Michelle Willems (Gretchen)
© Gregory Batardon

Goethe’s renowned Walpurgisnacht scene would pose a challenge to any choreographer, but I found the sheer glitz of the line-up in Clug’s production over the top. It was a mix of Ice Follies and clumpy animal hooves, a largely frontal showcase of human mutants and insects in odd-ball, eccentric costuming which, in one instance, even caused a noticeable stumble. We later learned that all the hoof-shoes had been specially crafted by the opera’s superb costume department. Accolades to these who made them, but that aside, the freak parade was drawn out for what seemed an eternity.

That said, Milko Lazar’s mesmerizing music was an elixir throughout. The pulsating score and cembalo interjections were brilliant drivers for the disparate scenes on stage, varying as they did from the intimate to the highly dynamic. What’s more, under Mikhail Agrest’s baton, the Philharmonia Zürich counted Lazar’s ever-changing, rhythmic score with great precision, with the cembalo a stunning enhancement. 

****1