Dance: Pet Shop Boys/Javier De Frutos, The Most Incredible Thing, Sadler’s Wells

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

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Dance: Jam Free 2010-11 Focus on… Cando 2 touring youth dance company

Jam Free, the youth dance performance project for girls aged 11-16 and coordinated by London Youth Dance and Sadler’s Wells, is now in its third year. The project provides schools in outer London boroughs with regular dance clubs led by professional artists, and culminated this year in a performance by all the local groups at the Lilian Baylis Studio on Tuesday 15 March 2011.

As well as the local clubs run by partners in each borough (Greenwich Dance in Greenwich, The Place in Hackney and iNNOVATION Dance in Barnet), the initiative brings London-based youth companies to local venues to showcase the very best in youth dance and inspire club participants to aim higher. This year, Cando2 – the youth dance group of integrated company Candoco – is one of the three youth companies on the Jam Free tour.

Cando2 members are aged 14 to 25 years old and include both disabled and non-disabled young people. The group currently on tour has been dancing together since September. Lise Smith caught up with Sarah Blanc, Candoco’s Youth Dance Manager and choreographer of the touring piece, in Greenwich.

Sarah describes the first date of the tour at artsdepot in Finchley as ‘pretty hectic – getting the tech done in half an hour and getting out again, but it was really fun to be around and sharing the dressing rooms and things!’ Sarah feels the company has benefitted from being part of a larger tour with other companies. ‘It’s just a wee small thing, but we were sharing a dressing room with [Blueprint bursary winner] Joseph Toonga’s group and it was nice to feel part of something,’ she smiles.

The piece Cando2 are performing on the Jam Free tour, Lay Down Your Weary Tune, is based on the Bob Dylan song of the same name and includes movement phrases inspired by the lyrics of the song. Anna, who has danced with the company since last February, explains how the piece was put together: ‘We created material from phrases from the song which triggered something within us and played with duets and trios and different group material.’ Jenny adds, ‘Sarah made material on us and we also made our own material, learnt each other’s work, also some improvisation into phrases and a lot of experimentation as well – so a real bundle of everything really!’ The company members have all enjoyed performing in the differing spaces of the Jam Free tour circuit. Anna feels that the intimate space of artsdepot worked in the piece’s favour. ‘The thing for me was being close to the audience and really being able to invite them into our piece, because we could really see them throughout the performance and really get that intimate response to what we were performing.’ Laura, who has been dancing with Cando2 since 2009, agrees: ‘I think working in that intimate space, you get to connect with the audience and being so close to them, you feel that connection so much more.’

Cando2 perform at Greenwich Dance's Borough Hall as part of Jam Free 2010-11  Photo: Gigi Giannella Cando2 perform at Greenwich Dance's Borough Hall as part of Jam Free 2010-11  Photo: Gigi Giannella Cando2 perform at Greenwich Dance's Borough Hall as part of Jam Free 2010-11  Photo: Gigi Giannella

Sarah felt that the piece benefitted in a different way from the large, open space of the Borough Hall at Greenwich Dance: ‘It was just such a beautiful space, and giving it the space and watching it grow was great.’

Jenny feels the weekly rehearsals have been a good opportunity for company members to get to know one another. ‘I’ve only been with them since September, so it’s been nice to see each other at the weekend to rehearse and things like that, and obviously I’m very excited for the performances to come!’ she says. Kimberley, one of the company’s two wheelchair users, adds. “It’s been really lovely to be able to perform as a company of seven and to explore what the piece is about and explore our relationships with each other through the piece.’ Laura agrees: ‘It feels like we’ve developed our own relationships with each other, and working together as well in our intense rehearsals has been really lovely.’

Many company members feel the opportunity has enabled them to grow and develop as performers. Anna feels one of the great benefits of the tour has been the opportunity to perform Lay Down Your Weary Tune multiple times and in different spaces over the past few weeks. ‘I feel that I’ve been able to see how the piece has grown, and therefore how I’ve grown within the piece. Just by getting to go to different venues I’m learning more stuff about myself, how I react as a dancer and how I can develop as a dancer.’ Dancer DJ also loves the fact that the Jam Free tour has helped raise the profile of Cando2 and allowed young people around London to see and experience their work ‘The tour is amazing because we’re an amazing company and it’s good for other people to understand us,’ he enthuses. ‘It’s enhanced us so much – people are starting to get to know Cando2, and we’ve got an amazing opportunity to shine.’

Although the tour is at an end for this year, Sarah feels the journey is just beginning. ‘I think they’re going to continue benefitting – it’s been such an amazing experience to be able to work together in a small group and really feel what it’s like to be in a process, like you would in a professional dance setting, has been invaluable for them.’ For Cando2, Jam Free has provided an opportunity to work together intensively, create new dance material, experience touring and showcase the company around London. ‘And,’ adds Kimberley, ‘it’s given me the opportunity to be in a company of seven wonderful dancers.’

Report by Lise Smith
March 2011

Find out more about Jam Free

Find out more about Cando2 at