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#182 The Most Incredible Thing at Sadler’s Wells Theatre

April 1, 2011

The clock represents industry at its most creative and magical. The lady represents a lady doing a dance.

Are you familar with the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Most Incredible Thing in the World? Neither were we. But do you know who is?  Chris wossname, Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys. He and Neil Tennant took the story (which you can read here – go on, it’s very short) and whipped up a ballet from it, with choreographer Javier De Frutos. If you want a tl;dr of the fairy tale, here you go:

king hold competition for most incredible thing in world
man make magic clock, win competition
bad man smash clock
this inexplicably proclaimed more incredible than clock, so bad man win
clock magically reform
defeat bad man
everyone happy.

In the beginning, it looked like we were about to witness an early-80s throwback of monumental proportions, a retro-themed pop nugget. Dry ice, mirrors, semi-robotic worker drones doing semi-robotic moves à la Queen’s Radio Gaga video (à la Fritz Lang’s Metropolis); it was so perfectly 80s, it was almost felt as if we were watching through a grainy VHS filter. Things stayed stuck in the 80s groove as we watched the teen princess (whose hand in marriage will go to the winner of the competition) bop around in her bedroom to the sounds of a George Michael-esque singer voiced by Tennant. Meanwhile, our engineer hero got inspiration from three mysterious female figures, and built his whizzo magic clock.

Things got faster – but less focussed – when the competition started, and the show lurched into a post-modern, Baz Luhrman-Esque parody of X Factor, complete withsponsorship and bored pro judges. When the clock is revealed, we’re whisked into a different dimension – a series of dances from fantastical number-themed figures, counting up from 2 (Adam and Eve), through Seven (the Vices, we think), to Moses and his Ten Dancing Commandments (which was better than it sounds.)

The bad man – in this version, a fascistic nobleman – destroys the clock, steals the princess and imprisons the King. We were leaning forward in our seats for a fantastic finale in which the clock’s creations stream out and wreak their revenge, but it’s the three female figures of inspiration who save the day instead. Which seemed a bit of a waste. Who doesn’t want to see Moses slap down a fascist?

So the storytelling’s a little uneven, but the set pieces were effective and the mixed-media, video-projection elements were as well choreographed as the dancing. And behind everything, the orchestral score was punctuated by huge, hilarious, heartwarming Pet Shop Boys beats and synths.  At the end of the day, this may not have been the most incredible thing – but it was still pretty spiffing all the same. It’s really a family show at its heart, so if it ever gets staged again, drag little girls to it. They’ll love it.

Making a ballet from a Hans Christian Andersen story isn’t exactly thinking outside the box*, by the way. The Steadfast Tin Soldier? Ballet-ised within Andersen’s lifetime. The Snow Queen? The English National Ballet staged this in 2007 (as did many others before them). The Red Shoes? Goes without saying. The Ugly Duckling? Got itself adapted into a ballet only a couple of years ago. Even the Danny Kaye film got Thumbelina dancing. You get the idea. The melancholy Dane’s self-pitying, literary and, frankly, sentimental-to-the-point-of-hysteria stories exert a magnetic pull for dance folk.

Most bizarrely, The Little Mermaid was actually a ballet in its original form. Think about that. It takes some big brass balls to make a ballet about a girl with no legs.

*I was going to put ‘thinking outside the tinder box, haha’, but I realised I would have to kill you, all the other readers, Mrs Brown and then myself as penance. Yes, The Tinder Box is a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Adapted into a ballet a few years back, too. Oh, never mind.

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