A Nutcracker with a difference. Christian Spuck’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig for Ballett Zürich

Opera House, Zürich
December 8, 2022

Outside the Opera House, a chill wind blows off the lake. The temperature may be around zero, although it doesn’t seem to be noticed by the crowds enjoying Zürich’s Christmas market on the Sechseläutenplatz. It is very traditional. Indoors on stage, things are rather more alternative, however, Ballett Zürich artistic director Christian Spuck offering a very singular take on The Nutcracker.

That Spuck’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig will be different is obvious even before it starts, the entering audience greeted by the sight of accordionist Ina Callejas slumped against one side of the proscenium arch. As she plays a desperately plaintive version of the ‘The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’, slightly soulful clowns Aurore Aleman Lissitzky and Daniel Mulligan produce some acrobatic humour, going on to act as links between scenes, with Mulligan also producing some unexpected and rather impressive tap.

Dominik White Slavkovský as Drosselmeier
in Ballett Zürich’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig
Photo Gregory Batardon

Once the ballet begins in earnest, Spuck eschews the usual ballet narrative, returning to the dark fantasy of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story. Inventive barely does it justice. Every scene brings surprises as the choreographer flips between make-believe and reality in a multi-layered evening where narratives collide.

There are also scenes not in most versions, including the tale of Krakatuk, a hard nut, a sort of prelude to the original tale. We also get to see how the Prince was first turned into a wooden nutcracker in a final act by the wicked Frau Mauserinks (a deliciously evil-looking and malicious Mélissa Ligurgo), after he had stamped on her to break a spell on Princess Pirlipat (Greta Calzuola) who had been turned into a nutty monster.

Spuck’s different approach also led him to disassemble and then reorder Tchaikovsky’s familiar music. Time and again, the familiar becomes unfamiliar as tunes come in different contexts. Indeed, it starts with what is usually the closing waltz of the grand finale.

Mélissa Ligurgo as Frau Mauserinks
in Christian Spuck’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig
Photo Gregory Batardon

The staging and costuming is just as innovative. Rufus Didwszus’ set, including a stage within a stage, sits inside a gaudily lit proscenium arch. Buki Shiff’s costumes move from incredibly elegant monochrome for the Act I royal court, through the usual nineteenth-century dress, to incredible fantasy in Marie’s dream.

It’s complex and makes for a real puzzle. For a while, Spuck’s ballet is very disorienting. It does become increasingly clear as the familiar starts to emerge, however. Marie still falls for the Nutcracker that Drosselmeier displays at a family Christmas eve gathering. She still has a dream where he comes to life at night and, with a battalion of toy soldiers, does battle with the mice, although the fight is one of the ballet’s weaker moments, with no-one actually laying a sword on anyone until the final moment. And Marie still gets to go to the Land of Sugar with her Nutcracker turned prince. Perhaps most importantly of all, there is still a strong sense of the delights of childhood, of growing up, and of innocent love.

Christian Spuck’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig
pictured: Michelle Willems (Marie) and William Moore (Prince)
Photo Gregory Batardon

At the heart of everything, pulling all the strings, is Marie and Fritz’s godfather, Drosselmeier. In his top hat and swirling black frock coat, Dominik White Slavkovský managed to be part friendly guide, part sinister magician. The eyes are drawn to him even when just standing at the side or in the far distance. He was quite simply terrific throughout.

Meiri Maeda was a delightful Marie, fall of innocence and wonder at what was being conjured up, and always fluid and graceful in her dancing. Matthew Knight shifted between the roles of Nephew, Nutcracker and Prince with aplomb. The way he kept up the wooden stilted gait of the toy was especially impressive.

With Marie in white dress and soft shoes and her slightly geeky-looking love back in his sleeveless pullover and glasses, the final pas de deux is delightfully understated. There are lifts, but the emotion really rolls in the quieter moves as they simply walk hand-in-hand, gazing into one another’s eyes.

The Dance of the Snowflakes in Ballett Zürich’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig
Photo Gregory Batardon

Elsewhere, the Dance of the Snowflakes gets a twist as they appear in black tutus sprinkled with fairy lights. The prize for best tutu goes to the Sugar Fairy (Sujung Lim), however, who appears in a number decorated with masses of cupcakes that Drosselmeier struggles to keep his hands off. As she dances to the music for the Arabian Dance (also known as Coffee), you can’t help wondering if it’s a wink towards that German favourite kaffee und kugel.

The Waltz of the Flowers (led by Katja Wünsche and Alexander Jones) gets a bit of sending up with the men bare-chested and sporting beards of flowers. Their partners’ each come with a single-flowered tutu of giant petals with coloured wigs to match. The choreography, meanwhile, flips from the traditional classical to hilarious hip swivelling.

Weird but wonderful, Spuck’s Nutcracker and the Mouse King is a take on the festive ballet like no other. He does take the ballet away from its usual Christmassy feel (although I did spot a small Christmas tree at one point) but, at heart, it is still very much The Nutcracker, a ballet of strange characters, fantastic pictures, dreams and romance; and still very much a seasonal treat.