The Most Incredible Thing

The Pet Shop Boys' foray into ballet is heavy with irony.

For many, the idea of the Pet Shop Boys composing a ballet was the most incredible thing. Which was just what made this (sort of) ballet by the Pets a publicist's dream. Other attention-catchers were the dancer Ivan Putrov, former principal of the Royal Ballet, and the modern dance choreographer Javier de Frutos, whose varied career has been both spurred and dogged by controversy (his last piece featured a deformed pope in an orgy of sexual violence).

Big names, diverse collaborators, crossover appeal, guaranteed press coverage - Sadler's Wells had hosted this kind of project before, with mixed results. Happily, The Most Incredible Thing turned out a lot better than its last such production, Shoes. Sadly, however, it was less than perfect.

Still, it fizzes with ideas. It is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen which tells of a king who promises his daughter and half his kingdom to the suitor who can show him the most incredible thing. The winner is the maker of a clock that shows marvellous scenes on the stroke of each hour. But when a vandal smashes it to pieces, the judges agree that to destroy such a thing is even more incredible. The shattered pieces return to take their revenge, and in the end the clockmaker marries the princess and everyone is happy - which, as Andersen wryly notes, is pretty incredible in itself.

The production is impressive. It begins with a film of paper cut-outs being snipped into shape (a reference to Andersen's own skill in paper-cutting). The proscenium arch, angled like a trapezoid cut-out, opens on to a picture-book backdrop of walls, windows and moveable panels stencilled with the blocky designs of constructivist art. At a table is an array of identikit dancers, limbs pistoning like the parts of a machine as they intermittently strike heroic, Soviet-poster-style worker poses. In the middle of it all, a princess bops in her room to a Pet Shop Boys hit.

This is a foretaste of the profusion of styles and cultural references to come. The competition is staged as a TV talent show, complete with cheesy hostess, hammy on-screen judges and underwhelming contestants, such as the guy who folds a towel to make a swan ("Like Jesus turning water into wine!" exclaims the hostess. "Except it's still a towel"). As throughout, the dense music - filmic swells and disco beats piled on top of lush orchestral harmonies, metronomic tick-tocks and brassy fanfares - generally overeggs the atmosphere.

It is, in truth, all rather too much, especially as the principal characters similarly feel like cut-outs and the choreography seems largely to chase itself around the set. Act II is much better, focusing on a psychedelic film projected on to a suspended clock face. Shame, then, that the shattering of the clock is so cursory and that Act III reverts to the under-focused busyness of Act I. In some ways, The Most Incredible Thing is like a conventional three-act ballet, with its stock characters, fairy-tale setting, alternation of story and spectacle, and wedding finale. But both de Frutos and the Pet Shop Boys are far too self-conscious and ironic to give free rein to the 19th-century emotions that power the ballet classics: indeed, emotion scarcely features at all.

Instead, there is a welter of ideas, beneath which seems to lie the suggestion of creativity itself as an unbreakable force (smash the art, but the idea remains). Which is why, I take it, de Frutos has crammed the choreography with references to dance history: Nijinska's Noces, Fokine's Spectre de la Rose, Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom, Bob Fosse and various pieces staged or made by de Frutos. Most prominent is Balanchine's Apollo, featuring muses as the inspiration for art.

In art, however, ideas and inspiration need form, expression and shape. The Most Incredible Thing demonstrates that truism: its ideas are under-realised and overproduced. But at least they have substance. l

The Most Incredible Thing
Sadler's Wells, London EC1

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special