In the Pet Shop Boys’ glorious 1988 single Left To My Own Devices, Neil Tennant announces his desire to unite “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat.” This idiosyncratic combination of high and low culture has long been the hallmark of PSB’s output: witty, literate lyrics over a pounding 808 beat, videos featuring Joss Ackland and tours directed by Derek Jarman; so it’s not at all surprising that Tennant describes this new collaboration with choreographer Javier De Frutos as “part of a long career putting pop music in a theatrical context”. A genuinely ambitious project bringing together some of the biggest names in music, dance and stage design, The Most Incredible Thing will surely attract new audiences through the Sadler’s Wells doors – but is it any good?
Disappointingly, the answer is “sort of”. The ballet is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s story about a competition to find the titular Most Incredible Thing, in exchange for the hand of the princess and half the kingdom. A young artist creates an amazing clock containing the wonders of the world; a thuggish solider destroys the clock and declares himself the winner. Andersen’s text suggests the power of art over brutishness in a delicate, allegorical way, and it’s easy to see why this would be an attractive subject for a ballet.
By far the most striking aspect of this production is Katrina Lindsay’s remarkable stage design – an eye-popping series of constructivist sets overhung with a giant paper cut-out in the Scandinavian style, representing the unnamed kingdom of Andersen’s story. The stylised industrial-modernist cogs and gears recall Chaplin’s Modern Times; the staging seems at times alive, with characters popping out of it, or portions being swiveled around to reveal previously concealed action. Lindsay’s design is further enlivened by Tal Rosner’s film projections, also saturated in constructivist visuals.
Tennant and Lowe’s score is great if, like me, you can never get enough of Italo-house pianos and enormous drum fills. Although there are hints of broader influences – a Viennese Waltz, a snatch of Bizet in the second act and a cheeky quotation from PSB’s own Love etc. – the sound is unmistakably Pet Shop; the boys have sacrificed little of their dance-pop sensibility, although the score is played by a live orchestra rather than a Fairlight. It’s fun enough, as electronic-orchestral ballet scores go.
As choreographer, De Frutos has an immense task to compete with the astonishing production design on the one hand and an iconic soundtrack on the other, and it’s not one to which he fully rises. The ensemble sections are servicable enough – the subjects of the kingdom are shown going about their daily toil with repeated proletarian gestures; flat feet sliding across the floor, flat backs hinging to a factory table and arms held aloft at industrial right-angles. It’s readable and accessible, if not terribly original.
Better are the supple duets – between artist Leopold and the Princess when she begs for his help to release her from her gilded cage, and between Adam and Eve when they emerge from the clock in Act 2. The second act, with its series of divertissements illustrating the wonders of the clock, is by far the strongest here, with a nod to Fosse in the Seven Deadly Sins sequence, and Busby Berkeley with the kaleidoscopic floor patterns of the Ten Commandments.
This diverting series of variations might have worked quite well on its own – or with minimal narrative padding – as a one-act ballet. But the material is stretched out to three, the first act filled out with an X Factor-style talent contest between the citizens hoping for the prize. The third act, in which the clock takes its terrible revenge, is by contrast inexplicably rushed and compressed. Despite the presence of actor Michael Camp as the King, the dramaturgy is frequently hammy and the narrative underlined with heavy-handed projected surtitles, as if De Frutos fears the audience will otherwise miss the story.
Ivan Putrov, who initiated the project with Tennant and Lowe, is in fine form as the thuggish Karl, whirling across the stage with effortless jetes en tournant. But the real standout for me is Clemmie Sveaas as the Princess; her lithe body makes light work of the technical demands of the choreography and expresses every nuance of emotion, from anguish at her entrapped predicament to joy at the final reunion. Among the company of capable dancers Sveaas shines as the only member able to compete with the astonishing set.
It’s taken three years to realise The Most Incredible Thing, and the effort involved is visibly and aurally evident. That doesn’t mean it works, unfortunately – the dance is frequently drowned out by the attention-grabbing set, film and score, and suffers from too little pacing in the first half and too much in the second. Not the most incredible thing to land on the Sadler’s Wells stage this year, then, but bound to be a seat-filler anyway.
Continues at Sadler’s Wells until Sat 26 March. Returns only
Originally posted at www.londondance.com