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Flash Review, 6-2: 'Everything' and the Boys
The 'Incredible' destiny of Javier De Frutos

A scene from Javier De Frutos's new "The Most Incredible Thing," with an original score by the Pet Shop Boys. Gavin Evans photo courtesy Sadler's Wells.

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2011 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- "The Most Incredible Thing," seen in its premiere earlier this Spring at Sadler's Wells, was a big event in the city's dance calendar, attracting more anticipatory press coverage than any other dance happening since the local screening of "The Black Swan." Pop stars, an infamous choreographer, a fairy-tale, phenomenal dancers and extravagant designs were some of its winning ingredients. Set to an evening-length score by the pop duo the Pet Shop Boys (Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe), who were inspired to make a work based on Hans Christian Andersen's story of the same name, "The Most Incredible Thing" centers on nothing less than the power of art to stand up to human destruction.

Tennant and Lowe's composition is based on their distinctive electronic dance music, here performed by a full orchestra, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Direction and choreography is by Javier de Frutos, an inspired choice by 'The Boys' and a marriage made it heaven -- at least so it appeared from the strength of the collaboration. De Frutos has made a welcome comeback to Sadler's Wells after having been reviled by some dance critics and spectators for his controversial piece "Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez," performed as part of "In the Spirit of Diaghilev" at Sadler's Wells in October 2009. The work, a response to the inventive and flamboyant scenarios and designs of Jean Cocteau, depicted a fictional pope who raped and molested alter boys and raped a pregnant nun. While it was not the first De Frutos work to feature sex and violence, it was so intentionally over the top that while some spectators and critics took offense, others raved about it. However, De Frutos received death threats and a lot of negative press, the final rejection coming from the BBC, which cancelled plans to broadcast De Frutos's work during Christmas on a program with three other choreographers.

The story here, which concerns a king who challenges prospective suitors to come up with the most incredible thing in return for his daughter's hand in marriage and his kingdom, provides plenty of opportunity for imaginative content, a la "The Nutcracker." In addition to weddings, deaths, and good triumphing over evil, there's the competition itself to decide on the most incredible thing, presented like a reality TV show, complete with hostess and judges. There's a hero -- the impoverished artist Leo, who with the help of three muses creates a magical clock which possesses 12 spirits. When the spirits, which represent many wonders of the world, come to live, materializing out of the clock, they are so impressive that the clock is decreed the most incredible thing, and Leo the winner. But the arch-villain, Karl, a power-hungry military officer, breaks the clock in a destructive act of jealousy before forcibly claiming both princess and kingdom.

Katrina Lindsay has created clever, efficient designs in the style of Russian futurism, jagged angles and blocks of shapes that recall Cubism or Dadaist collage. Colors used in both costumes and décor are dramatic blacks, whites and reds. Large props such as a chandelier are made out of paper cut-outs, in keeping with the cut-outs Hans Christian Andersen loved to make and which inspired many of his stories. The cut-outs also appear in the films and cartoons incorporated into this multi-media work. A long table is a central device around which the dancers perform robotic sequences in symmetrical lines, like efficient factory workers or sometimes angry negotiators. Squabbling in tense, percussive phrases around the multi-purpose table, the performers remind me of the politicians in Kurt Jooss's "The Green Table." In the final mis-en-scene, the multi-purpose table also becomes a wedding aisle and the site of the final banquet, therefore a symbol of joy.

While the sound and design are fundamental elements, it is the choreography which seems to make the overall performance gel, and helps achieve the 3-D spectacle that the ballet is. Movement animates each of the characters: the king, the princess, Leo the artist and creator of the famous clock, Karl the evil military man, factory workers, soldiers, servants and the contestants who enter the competition with their incredible offerings. There's a man who balances rocks on his head, another who folds towels into animal shapes, someone with a performing dog, a chorus line of women in fishnets with their male pimp -- a sort of Bob Fosse assemblage -- and a brassy and insincere game show host. Other characters appear in a film projected onto a screen above the stage: three judges -- a boy, an elderly woman, and a man. With their mixture of sinister, comical and surreal qualities they resemble crazy people from a David Lynch movie. There's also a Lynch-like tackiness in the set of this game show, tawdry red velvet curtains, gaudy tassels and fake make-up on the participants.

In this work for 16 dancers, De Frutos's choreography is uncharacteristically balletic, but still includes the hyper expressive, quivering upper body movements and gestures that he's known for. What is fascinating is that he creates Balanchine lines and recycles this neo-classical choreographer's love of speed, height of limbs and expansive arabesques. These are then juxtaposed with Bob Fosse-style hip-jutting routines, disco dancing, and highly gestural actions.

De Frutos has interpreted the two-and-a-half hour score, with its repetitive, electronic dance beats, by devising phrases of robotic actions performed in unison, which work with the beat rather than fighting against it. The dancers, from both ballet and contemporary dance backgrounds, and including Ivan Putrov (ex-Royal Ballet), Aaron Sillis, and Clemmie Sveaas are impressively versatile and rise admirably to the demands of the choreography.

Envisaging the kingdom as a Russian state in which people work hard and with little joy, De Frutos invents bursts of mechanical activity which are convincing. Flamboyant maneuvers also explode out of the tightly structured sequences, such as when the workers leap onto the table from their ordered lines, or the spirits spring out of the clock, these displays of lyricism conveying the creativity and vitality that Leo brings to the dreary kingdom with his enchanted clock. In his response to the romantic, heterosexual love and happy endings in the story or the sometimes schmaltzy, soppy music, De Frutos has crafted the most traditional ballet lifts, in which the princess melts elegantly into Leo's arms. But balletic grace and poise are also woven throughout into his own evocative physical language. The happy ending with everybody finding love and harmony evidence that just as De Frutos can convey the sordid, depraved, and destructive nature of humans with such terrifying realism, as when Leo and his father are beaten up or the princess forced to marry, so can he portray the pure, virtuous and benevolent, even with a sense of irony. There is room for everything in "The Most Incredible Thing."

Images continually surprise. In Act II, the inanimate parts of the clock spring to life. A succession of 12 absurdly beautiful cultural-historical references appear, embodied by the dancers, evoking, variously, the first man on the moon, the four seasons, muses, figures from the Bible, and the five senses. Even an ultrasound of an unborn baby appears on film. Each image amazes, whether an ingenious movement or a clever visual design: the senses, depicted through physical accoutrements like large lips and earlobes worn by the dancers like strange found objects appearing in a Dada procession; a pianist who becomes a piece of her piano; three muses who could have walked straight out of Balanchine's "Apollo"; the four seasons, appearing like reincarnations of the Rose spirit in Fokine's "Le Spectre de la Rose." After the clock has been destroyed, doom and gloom ensue, at the end of Act II. A miserable wedding takes place in which the distraught princess is forced to marry Karl, and which in its starkness and functionality evokes Nijinska's "Les Noces."

De Frutos has made an intricate ballet that is also a feast of culturally rich references. Besides the choreographic references explored in the dance itself alluded to above -- to the Ballets Russes, Balanchine, and Fosse -- and the film allusions such as those to Lynch and Kubrick, he also tried to bring writers and painters into the dance's universe, if only as names projected on a screen: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Tennessee Williams, Frida Kahlo, Picasso, Magritte....The net effect is to situate his dance tale as a classic story updated for a contemporary audience. This is what I love about "The Most Incredible Thing."

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