Incredible, indeed — for better and worse. An extraordinary and diverse array of talents, ideas and resources has been poured into this full-length story ballet with music and lyrics by pop legends Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, a.k.a. the Pet Shop Boys. And, in the trippy second act, when all elements – music, light and sound, projections and animation, and Javier de Frutos’ brilliant choreography – work in sync, it does feel like something genuinely new in the world of staged entertainment is starting to emerge. But overall, the evening doesn’t fully come together, and is finally felled by a lack of coherent narrative.
Lowe and Tennant approached Sadler’s Wells four years ago with the idea of using Hans Christian’s Andersen’s late story, about a king who offers his daughter’s hand in marriage and half the kingdom to the person who can invent the world’s “most incredible thing”, as the basis for an evening-length dance piece. Bringing de Frutos on board as choreographer and director makes great sense: his mix of classical and contemporary dance vocabularies and flamboyant, sometimes campy theatricality compliments the Boys’ sensibility and the something-old/something-new nature of the project.
De Frutos offers up some bravura choreography and staging in the first act, clearly establishing the scenario and plot: Russian constructivist-influenced design and the chorus’ automaton-like movement suggest a world of forced conformity. A series of short episodes introduce the principals: superb Royal Ballet soloist Ivan Putrov plays Karl, the baddie military man (shades of Stalin); Aaron Sillis, who’s better as a mover than an emoter, is the heroic, thoughtful artist Leo; and we learn of the Princess (the wonderful Clemmie Sveaas) and her free spirit via an aud-pleasing inside joke: locked up in her bedroom, she dances irrepressibly to a Pet Shop Boys song. The rest of Lowe and Tennant’s accomplished score is new, and recognizably tinged with their synth sound, offering many pleasing melodies (Leo and the Princess’ love theme is particularly hummable).
The tone shifts uneasily to contempo satire as the contest to determine “the most incredible thing” is staged like a TV reality talent show (the ubiquity and crassness of such programs is surely over-trodden territory at this point). The approach to enacting Leo’s contest-winning invention — a clock that reveals images of iconic stories of human life and invention every time it strikes the hour – is much more inventive. Against the backdrop of Tal Rosner’s ingenious projections on a huge clock-face screen, de Frutos has a choreographic field day, staging the story of Adam and Eve, the ecstatic devotions of a group of monks, the seven deadly sins and more; recorded trance music layers over the live orchestra’s sounds. It helps to know the Andersen story in advance, but for auds able to go with the somewhat confusing narrative flow, this is intoxicating stuff.
Things get more conventional, and significantly less coherent, in the final act: We end up at a happily-ever-after ending after a few unexplained plot twists and with a serious sense of anti-climax. There’s no clear sense of a directorial hand here; it’s as if everyone ran out of steam.
Nine-night run at Sadler’s Wells is completely sold out, thanks surely to the interest generated by the Pet Shop Boys’ involvement. An extension could probably be floated on the same basis, but more work on clarifying the story and regulating the evening’s flow is required before this could fly in the commercial realm.