Working together with the choreographer Marius Petipa, Tchaikovsky composed The Sleeping Beauty for St Petersburg's Imperial Ballet in 1890. Productions of it have usually feature animated scenes with fairies, royals and wedding guests all bustling about at court, but Christian Spuck's new Zurich Ballet production takes that configuration up a hefty notch.

William Moore (Carabosse) © Gregory Batardon
William Moore (Carabosse)
© Gregory Batardon

Being inside the Zurich house was a first-since-lockdown experience for many in the audience, yet remarkably, while mask-wearing was de rigueur, the social distancing regulations observed in other Zurich performance premises went by the wayside. Neighbour to neighbour, the opera house was fair close to capacity at the premiere. 

Spuck draws on the familiar fairy tale of Princess Aurora, at whose christening the “bad fairy” Carabosse shows distain for not having been invited with an horrific curse: the young princess, on her 16th birthday, will prick her finger on a spindle and die. Fortunately, the good-willed Lilac Fairy moderates this curse, turning it into a slumber lasting 100 years, at which time Aurora will be awakened by her Prince’s redeeming kiss.

Having enjoyed terrific success in Zurich with his Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Spuck tackled Tchaikovsky again with good reason. That said, this current production seemed to run into overdrive. This has little to do with the dancers' highly polished performance abilities, nor Rufus Didwiszus’ innovative set, nor did it reflect the highly original costumes by Buki Shiff who, collaborating on Spuck’s other ballets, has consistently delivered imaginative feasts for the eye.   

Michaelle Willems (Aurora) and Esteban Berlanga (Désiré) © Gregory Batardon
Michaelle Willems (Aurora) and Esteban Berlanga (Désiré)
© Gregory Batardon

Instead, it is the repetition of similar movements, the confusion in numbers, and a sense of the commonplace variety that cost the ballet dearly. Indeed, for the most part, the effect of dozens of whirlwind configurations make more of a glorified Vaudeville act than it does to support a touching narrative. And with the swirling of arms at what felt like unforgiving lengths, the production gives “the show must go on” an entirely new connotation. 

That said, the company members, put hard to the test, danced commendably. As Carabosse, William Moore gave a stellar performance, moving seamlessly from being credibly sensitive to an evil figure that could make us all cringe. Even so, Moore’s portrayal of his character’s human torment stirred great compassion. Torn by conscience and haunted by his impulsive curse, his Carabosse suffered pangs of distress that were fully palpable. And as the innocent Aurora, Michelle Willems danced the youthful princess with aplomb, despite the role’s treacherous demands. The role of her Prince was taken by Esteban Berlanga who was inordinately reserved, and showed little passion or facial expression, making it somewhat implausible that he would be the one who would win Aurora's heart. 

Jan Casier (Lilac Fairy) © Gregory Batardon
Jan Casier (Lilac Fairy)
© Gregory Batardon

The delightful sextet of gender-fluid fairies was headed up by Jan Casier who, as the Lilac Fairy, shifted the course of the narrative at the start, and gave us antics and a favourite-auntie-type goodwill that was infectious. The collective group of fairies (Iacopo Arregui, George Susman, Dominik Slavkovsky, Wei Chen, and Mark Geilings) simply lit up the stage with their antics and flamboyant exaggerations, each one easy to love. 

Didwiszus’s neoclassical set, if bitterly formal in its appearance, is of the new ballet generation. As a patrician villa’s roomy ground floor, the set can rotate 360 degrees, such that the dancers can vault through its colonnade, windows and doors – a whole feast of new possibilities – while the entire architectural construct itself can also be shifted upstage, leaving room for the dancers in larger configurations.   

William Moore (Carabosse) © Gregory Batardon
William Moore (Carabosse)
© Gregory Batardon

Even so, the production overall is disappointing. The dancers follow their orders through an animated, dense narrative, but the story itself is difficult to follow, and the company, usually so focused, seem to make up in bombast what it lacks in conviction. Through no fault of their own, the production is highly confusing; in the endless brouhaha of bodies, who was who to whom and why, often simply went under.

The Philharmonia Zürich, whose buoyant Tchaikovsky – given the corona restrictions – was broadcast by fibre optics from a studio about a kilometre up the road, did a sovereign job under conductor Robertas Šervenikas. While their commendable endeavour allowed the performance to go ahead inside the house itself, Spuck's flashy, discombobulated production is a bit too close to bawdy street theatre for comfort.  

**111