Opernhaus, Zürich, Switzerland; December 15, 2013

Maggie Foyer

Jan Casier as Woyzeck with dancers of Zurich Ballet. Photo © Judith Schlosser

Jan Casier as Woyzeck with dancers of Zurich Ballet.
Photo © Judith Schlosser

Leaving Covent Garden after a performance of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck”, my companion commented, ‘why do we keep coming back to a story that is so unremittingly awful?’ But we do. Georg Büchner’s drama is startlingly contemporary in its themes and eternal in its characterisation. This story of the common man, constantly buffeted by the vicissitudes of life and always the underdog, makes compelling viewing.

The posters advertise the Zürich show with the title and the picture of a single razor blade, an image which vividly captures the essence: sharp, painful and cruel. Despite all this, I was drawn to revisit Christian Spuck’s “Woyzeck” written for the Norwegian Ballet in 2011 and reworked for the Zürich Ballet which he now directs. Spuck has also choreographed a version of Büchner’s “Leonce and Lena” also presented last year to celebrate the anniversary of the dramatist’s birth in 1813.

The character of Woyzeck has a consummate interpreter in young Jan Casier. The vulnerability of his tall gangly frame belies the powerful dancer he is and his soulful eyes, as trusting as a spaniel, can bring you close to tears. It is a demanding role as he seldom leaves the stage for the hour and a half duration and never for a moment slips out of character although his interpretation inclines to the idealistic where the dumb beast could be more in evidence. London audiences may remember Casier in David Dawson’s “Faune” replacing the injured Esteban Berlanga in English National Ballet’s “Beyond Ballet Russe” programme in 2012.

Katja Wünsche brings womanly warmth to the character of Marie. She is a tenacious survivor, but longs for some beauty and colour in the grey poverty that surrounds her. She knows her red mouth is as beautiful as the mouth of any fine lady but is under no illusions about her lowly status. For a pretty pair of earrings she sells herself to the drum major, a dashing Arman Grigoryan. Their duet is a meeting of opposites. She is all puppy-like affection while he, even in the role of seducer, maintains a veneer of military harshness.

Katja Wünsche as Marie with Jan Casier as Woyzeck.  Photo © Judith Schlosser

Katja Wünsche as Marie with Jan Casier as Woyzeck.
Photo © Judith Schlosser

Spuck brings his innate theatricality to the production. The inclusion of five drummers in the onstage action enforces the militaristic tone. Woyzeck from within their ranks repeats a set of semaphore gestures like a mantra or a cry for help, the other soldiers humiliate him and he comes off worst when he stands up to the drum major. In his meeting with the doctor, Woyzeck seated on an oversize chair, is totally at the mercy of the establishment. A simple peasant, he is led to believe that there can be no virtue for such as him. Yet in his sheer survival and in the moments of tenderness in his duets with Marie, morality and immorality become mere words.

The music sourced mainly from Alfred Schnittke and Philip Glass with original sections from Martin Donner is cleverly chosen. The tinkling of Glass’ “Music Box” highlights the inner fragility of the outwardly earthy characters. The drumming is driving and aggressive and Schnittke’s tunes set the rhythms for the organised dances of the townsfolk, neatly buttoned up and eminently respectable.

Spuck leaves the end unresolved (as in Büchner’s fragment). After murdering his beloved Marie in a frantic and brutally stabbing, Woyzeck wanders among the revellers in the town. He sees the drum major flirting with Margret, Marie’s friend and, consumed with jealousy, he grabs the nearest woman swinging her into the dance but she runs from his grasp. He crawls back to Marie’s body in the pouring rain and sits by her like a faithful hound as the curtain descends.