Ballett Zürich’s The Sandman

Opera House, Zürich
June 4, 2016

Maggie Foyer

Literature is littered with stories of men trying to create their perfect woman and bring her to life. E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman written around two centuries back is a particularly dark one and it is easy to see why Sigmund Freud found it of such interest.

The story is well known in the ballet world as the sugary Coppélia but the only connection with Christian Spuck’s version is the character of Coppelius, and there the similarity ends. The Sandman premiered in Stuttgart in 2006 and now comes to Zürich where Spuck is director. It is the bitter tale of Nathanael, a sensitive young man drawn into a fantasy where he loses both his beloved and his sense of reality.

With a fine tuned musical ear, Spuck creates Nathanael’s binary world: his nightmares are accompanied by Martin Donner’s eerie sounds while his love for Clara is in harmony with Robert Schumann’s melodies and Alfred Schnittke’s music inhabits something of each world. The string quartet, on stage in the first act, is a welcome support and the grand piano, on stage throughout inspires a brilliant close as the clawed hand of Coppelius touches the shoulder of pianist, Adrian Oetiker, bringing the work to a shuddering close.

Elizabeth Wisenberg as Clara and Alexander Jones as Nathanael in The SandmanPhoto Judith Schlosser
Elizabeth Wisenberg as Clara and Alexander Jones as Nathanael in The Sandman
Photo Judith Schlosser

Spuck is a master in creating a world peopled by fully formed characters. His family groupings are reminiscent of Otto Dix’ portraits but often the figures are facing upstage, detached and monochrome as Vilhelm Hammershøi might depict them: the ambience is unnerving and ridden with tension.

But it is the eyes that have it. Coppelius (Wei Chen), his later incarnation as Coppola (Manuel Renard), and the puppet master, Spalanzani (Dmitri Khamsin), all wear spectacles. They are similarly black suited and slightly hunched, their hands spidery and invasive. Nathanael, is transformed when he receives his distinctive glasses with a distended left eye that causes him to confuse Olimpia with a real woman.

Nathanael is a gruelling role and Alexander Jones manages both a believable interior and a strong exterior, very important as the part is as much an acting as a dance role. Spuck has him sitting, legs extended straight forward, gazing at the audience his head full of memories, as the childhood scene where the sinister Coppelius tries to steal his eyes is played out behind him. Later he assumes the same position, naïve and vulnerable, when he gives his heart to Olimpia.

The Sandman (Viktorina Kapitonova as Olimpia and Matthew Knight as Nathanael)Photo Judith Schlosser
The Sandman
(Viktorina Kapitonova as Olimpia and Matthew Knight as Nathanael)
Photo Judith Schlosser

For Olimpia, Anna Khamzina, the challenges are frighteningly technical. She stands out in the midst of the chic ensemble dressed in Emma Ryott’s sculptured frocks, in a tutu shaded in vivid cerise and emblazoned with giant flowers. Her duets first with Spalanzani and then with the disingenuous Nathanael, show Spuck at the wittiest. Accomplishing the difficult balances and awkward poses with mechanical precision, she holds a fixed smile, her hands set in convincingly lifeless position. Just as she is about to lose credibility Spuck adds an incline of the head to bring a human touch or has her throw her arms around his neck. He is besotted and we are enthralled by the sheer cleverness.

Clara, Elizabeth Wisenberg, brings a touch of sanity to this weird manipulative world, but her sweetness and the camaraderie of his friends is no match for the evil cabal and after a final unhappy duet she flees.

Olimpia reappears in the final scene now with her eyes gouged out. The child’s rocking horse, a repeating motif, is still in motion but now riderless, as the adult Nathanael lies prostrate on the floor. It’s a gripping tale but there is no happy ending.