Let’s face it: without The Nutcracker, any Christmas season would be poorly wanting. At Zurich Opera House, Christian Spuck capitalised on that conviction and programmed the second season of his retake on the great Tchaikovsky ballet. Based on a tale by the German Romanticist E.T.A. Hoffman, Spuck’s multi-layered ballet goes beyond the usual battles between soldiers and rats, bourgeoise family party, and trip to a kind of Neverland. Instead, this version focuses more on the larger spectrum of human experience: the delights of childhood, innocent love, and the mysteries of transforming experiences. Spuck’s is a more worldly-wise view.

Yen Han and Matthew Knight (Clowns) and William Moore (Nutcracker), Nutcracker and the Mouse King
© Gregory Batardon

And what a wonderful world! Having seriously reshuffled Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score to fit his own story, Spuck explores the humorous, bizarre, scurrilous and all-out whacko sides of human nature. Set designer Rufus Didwiszus’s stage looks like something out of a Vaudeville dive; nevertheless, with great appeal. Jagged mirrors set on and over the front of the stage make angled reflections, both of the dancers and orchestra. Gifted accordionist Ina Callejas serenades us into the performance with her plaintive version of “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”. As a pair of clowns, Yen Han and Matthew Knight offer hilarious entr'acte acrobatics even before the story begins. And we’re soon to meet the ominous Drosselmeier: godfather to the protagonist Marie, dervish and wily wizard, all in one.  

What begins as a festive family gathering in Act 1 soon morphs in a sequence of powerful dance performances by some 80 members of both the Zürich Ballet and the junior ballet. Some of the dancers take on multiple roles, making a handy measure for the degree of nervous energy on stage. Without programme notes, the finer details of the narrative might be hard for the audience to gather, for the sequence of events has been somewhat changed. But the ballet as such is consistently fresh and dynamic, largely because Spuck works brilliantly with defiance of gravity and what one could call “unexpected punctuation”. Even as small a gesture as a backward flip of the wrist, for example, done by 10 or 12 dancers concomitantly, can have a stop-short-in-your-tracks effect.

William Moore (Prinz) and Michelle Willems (Maria), Nutcracker and the Mouse King
© Gregory Batardon
As the Princess Pirlipat, whose double in the longer story is the lovely Marie, Eléonore Guénineau launched the intrigue nicely. The life-sized “rats” that scampered onstage made a dark abyss of foreboding that this Drosselmeier, the gifted Dominik Slavkovsky, seemed to make flesh; alone his first entrance was enough to make you shiver, and, his Ichabod Crane-like presence in a top hat was terrific throughout. Some said the character bore an uncanny resemblance to the choreographer Spuck himself. Right, and Bob’s your uncle.

Among other leading roles, Michelle Willems deserves special accolades for her Marie. Even despite complex choreography, she was fluid and graceful in her movements and portrayed an adolescent naiveté that was endearing. Daniel Mulligan danced Marie’s carefree brother, Fritz, with lots of adolescent poutiness and confidence, even on a skateboard. William Moore, who played the roles of wooden Nutcracker, The Prince, and Drosselmeier's nephew, slipped seamlessly into those disparate roles with great physical strength and aplomb. Some of the jaggedness he brought to the wooden toy was astoundingly authentic, and he danced the handsome royal with equal alacrity. There couldn’t have been a better alignment with his Marie either; he simply lifted her effortlessly. 

Cohen Aitchison-Dugas and Mélissa Ligurgo were deliciously malicious as the Mouse King and Queen, and as the kind of characters we love to hate, they had the children in the audience recoiling. Mélanie Borel and Filipe Portugal danced Marie’s grandparents, she, as a proper Swiss version of a granny, he, on a cane and little like an elderly Charlie Chaplin. In Act 2, a broad palette of loosely related sequences, two of the company’s accomplished soloists had rather mundane roles. Katja Wünsche danced the resident Head of the Flowers with muscular flair; Elena Vostrotina, the precise and academic dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, whose tutu sported a bakeshop’s whole delivery of frosted cupcakes. While both came across as saccharin, none could argue that their costumes—designed by the imaginative colourist Buki Shiff—were stories in themselves. Whether in neon colored petals, black tulle studded with tiny lights, the soft long wraps of Drosselmeier’s cloak or the white frock that underscored Marie’s tenderness, Shiff’s work was consistently delightful.

Dancers of Zurich Ballet and Zurich Junior Ballet, Nutcracker and the Mouse King
© Gregory Batardon

Finally, the opera house children’s’ choir and SoprAlti vocalists added considerably to the success of the ballet, and under American conductor Paul Connelly, a large configuration of musicians adapted smoothly to the changes in the score’s sequence. The winds and harp, particularly, stood out in an inspired performance, helping to craft what was a feast for eyes and ears.