Pet Shop Boys & Javier de Frutos
'The Most Incredible Thing'
by David Mead
March 27, 2012-- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK
Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1870 tale of the same title, “The Most Incredible Thing” tells the story of a competition. The king loves his daughter but continually scolds her for listening to pop music all day, so he announces a competition. Whoever produces “the most incredible thing” will win half the kingdom and the princess's hand in marriage. The young, geeky-looking, bespectacled Leo senses her distress at the idea and determines to win. With the help of three muses he wins with a fabulous clock that opens up to reveal dancing figures. The power-mad and decidedly villainous Karl smashes the clock, an act declared more incredible still, and so is declared the new winner. But the muses return to rebuild the timepiece and wreak their revenge by killing Karl, so ensuring that all ends happily ever after.
De Frutos has made some significant changes for this second season, not least moving from three acts to two, now inserting the break halfway through Act II. Confusingly, the programme still referred to Acts I to III. The good news, is that it remains quite stunning both visually and aurally. Katrina Lindsay’s designs are quite simply wonderful, brought to life not only by the dance, but also by Tal Rosner’s modernist film projections. The setting of proceedings in a grim authoritarian state works a treat, with the opening scene, set in some dark factory where everyone has been reduced to near automatons, shafts of light from tiny, high up windows piercing the gloom, is one of the best of all. The people have, it seems, been reduced to near automatons, their movement full of sliding feet and stiff limbs with industrially and sharply hinged joints. It is all reminiscent of 1920s German expressionism, of Fritz Lang and Kurt Jooss. There are plenty more ballet references later too, not least to Nijinska’s “Les Noces” and especially to Balanchine’s “Apollo” in the section where the three muses create the clock.
The score, by Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, part recorded and part played live by The Royal Ballet Sinfonia, is great. They might be known for their songs, but apart from a snatch from their own “Love etc.” it’s entirely instrumental. Industrial percussion, soaring strings and electronic all come together remarkably seamlessly. It always pushes on apace, thus doing the same for the dance.
De Frutos’ choreography is at its best when dealing with the dark side of the story and the dark characters. The contest itself is staged like some 1960s Soviet version of “Britain’s Got Talent”, but with a lot less pizzazz. The acts are lacklustre to start with and get worse and worse. On a screen to the side, three judges get ever more depressed and are sustained only by a never ending supply of vodka kindly provided by the sponsors.
Former Royal Ballet principal Ivan Putrov as the black-shirted, and power-crazed Karl, snarls, leaps and pirouettes his way through the story with aplomb, invariably accompanied by his henchmen. As outstanding as all his leaps and turns are, it was difficult to escape a feeling that they, somehow, didn’t really fit, and that something a little more, well, real or less overtly balletic, was needed.
The longer it went on, the more I grew to like Clemmie Sveaas as the Princess, who always made the choreography look easy. She was particularly impressive, and feisty, when fighting off Karl’s advances. Unfortunately, there is little opportunity for much in the way of a relationship to develop between her and Aaron Sillis’ Leo. Relationships take time, and that’s one thing “The Most Incredible Thing” doesn’t have much of.De Frutos always hustles us on, sometimes too fast. Act III, which opens with Karl in charge and all the workers back at their daily grind, now bathed in shafts of red light as though lit by the flames of hell, seems especially rushed. I couldn’t help thinking that so much more could have been made of the clock’s revenge. So, it’s quite a surprise to say that one section really dragged. Watching a clock go round in Act II, no matter how impressively it is projected, is only interesting for so long. Seasons appear to represent the number four. There are five senses, seven deadly sins, ten commandments etc. Some are really inventive, but you know there are 12 sections to get through and by the time we got to eight I was flagging badly. “Only four more to go” I found myself thinking.
So, maybe not ‘the most incredible ballet’ but it is rather hard not to like “The Most Incredible Thing.” The staging and bringing together of multiple effects are often stunning. They really do engulf you in and sweep you along in a way that is rare indeed.
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