One of the intriguing components of The Most Incredible Thing, Javier De Frutos’s latest creation, is its structure.
One of the intriguing components of The Most Incredible Thing, Javier De Frutos’s latest creation, is its structure. Intentionally steering away from the aesthetic developments that informed theatre dance for more than a century, De Frutos has opted instead to revive and revisit the compositional formulae of the late 19th-century three-act ballet. Bold and risky as that sounds, such a decision fits perfectly with the kaleidoscopic score which the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have been working on since 2008 and the storyline, derived from the tale by Hans Christian Andersen.
In line with the principles found in classics such as The Sleeping Beauty, Andersen’s narrative provides the pretext for those charming trappings 19th-century dance-makers believed in so firmly: strategically placed choral numbers, duets and solos for the protagonists, a few pas d’action (i.e., sections in which the dancing is never purely ornamental), the juxtaposition of ‘acted’ episodes and danced ones, and the traditionally unavoidable divertissement, which, in late 19th-century style, occupies an entire act.
De Frutos, who has always been successful at revisiting the past, deals with those ideas in his unique way, weaving in acting, film sequences and an overwhelming dose of dance quotations: from Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table to Balanchine’s Apollo, from Massine’s Pas d’Acier to Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, from Strictly Come Dancing to Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces. There are also more elusive referential passages to be found in the Pet Shop Boys’ music, which teases the ear with an engaging merry-go-round of different styles and melodies. Each reference adds an extra layer to the story, which, in turn, helps shift the action from a fairy-tale epoch to a more realistic time — a sort of neo-Soviet era, splendidly evoked by Katrina Lindsay’s constructivism-inspired designs and by Lucy Carter’s Meyerhold-echoing lights.
The choreography, therefore, develops from within and around these quotations, but never in a derivative way; it sometimes elicits a laugh, sometimes makes one think about the inescapable influences on dance-making. Indeed, once the game of quotations moves away from accessible references — such as an X Factor-like contest — to more highbrow ones, the risk of losing clarity and directness becomes greater — but this never happens. Things go awry only when De Frutos’s ingenious storytelling is replaced by plotless dancing. And this is what happens in the second act, which is dominated by the divertissement celebrating the magic of the clock created by the bohemian protagonist, the excellent Aaron Sillis, to win the hand of the princess.
I have often claimed on these pages that postmodern performance-makers should stay away from 19th-century divertissements in their revisions, as the nature of the divertissement, a series of ornamental dance numbers, does not lend itself to any kind of revisitation. Things here also stop being dramaturgically captivating and drag on a bit too much, despite the presence of some quotations and the interaction between the dancing and Tal Rosner’s impressive filmed animation, which, in my view, could have been exploited in a far more dramatic way.
Alas, the unevenness of the central act delivers an almost fatal blow to the whole. By the time the curtain goes up on the sombre Les Noces-like wedding ceremony between the villainous Karl, an ultra superb Ivan Putrov, and the Princess, an equally outstanding Clemmie Sveaas, the sparkle has gone. Which is unfortunate, for this postmodern rethinking of the classical ballet format has the potential to become a decisive turning point in the history of dance-making.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 2, 2011