When Mrs Chrisparkle and I first heard that there was to be a new ballet, with music by the Pet Shop Boys and choreography by Javier de Frutos, we thought “winner!” Regrettably we weren’t able to see it on its first outing at Sadler’s Wells last year. But when I saw it was coming back for a second season, I jumped at the chance to book.
Although I knew the music was to be freshly composed by the PSBs, it did get us thinking about how great a new piece you could make by concocting a dance around some of their greatest hits, as in Christopher Bruce’s Rolling Stones inspired Rooster. You can just imagine it – London – Shopping – Rent – It’s A Sin – What Have I Done To Deserve This – Heart – It Couldn’t Happen Here. Make up your own dance story with any seven or eight PSB songs of your own choice. I would like to see that happen for real.
Anyway, I digress. That – or anything like it – was not the show on offer at Sadler’s Wells last week. Let’s start with the good points. The first – and very significant – good point is that the freshly composed music by the Pet Shop Boys is excellent. From the moment it starts, it engages you in very exciting and wide-ranging musical styles. There’s electronic, pop, classical – you can even hear borrowings from Elgar. It’s music that makes you smile; it’s music that makes you want to get up and dance. (Not recommended in the stalls.)
Secondly, it benefits from high production values. It’s a great set, including a splendid backdrop evoking houses and flats extending way into the distance, and it constantly creates new areas suggesting workplaces, the palace, the TV studio, and so on. The lighting is lively and appealing, and you can see everything properly; the sound is clear, at a perfect volume, and, for those elements performed live, played faultlessly.
Thirdly, the execution of the dance is terrific. I would hesitate to say there was a stand-out performance as the whole cast come across as a very well balanced ensemble – but perhaps Aaron Sillis’ dance skills are particularly strong in his role as the inventor Leo.
However, I have to bring this down to earth. I’m sorry to say that both Mrs C and I found it excruciatingly dull. I confess that I didn’t realise it was an adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen tale until a couple of days after we’d seen it, and I now accept that it’s a reasonably good reworking of the tale for a modern era; but that doesn’t prevent it from being a very silly story. I’m guessing that the aim behind the creative team was to make something enchanting, something that would tap into one’s inner child, and something that would make the story’s moral (whatever it actually is) come alive with a warm glow and a feelgood outcome. It didn’t do it for us though.
The choreography is repetitive and fails to make the story clear. If it weren’t for the synopsis in the programme I don’t think I would have followed half of what was going on. Basically, the king offers the hand of his daughter to the person who invents the most incredible thing. Leo invents an amazing clock, which wins him the contest. But the clock gets destroyed by his evil rival Karl, and it is agreed that to destroy the most incredible thing is in itself “the most incredible thing”. In Andersen’s tale, the magical characters who populate the clock come back and kill Karl, which becomes in turn even more of an incredible thing, so Leo gets the Princess. I guess that might have been OK for the 1870s but today the story is shot through with holes. For example, destroying the most incredible thing is not an invention, and the programme says it would be an invention that would win the contest. The King is all-powerful – after all, he can offer his daughter’s hand willy-nilly to whoever wins the contest – but nevertheless Karl’s few henchmen – not that scary really – prevent him from taking the Princess away by means of a tiny tussle at the edge of the stage. How likely is that?
What ought to be highlights in the story are disappointing lows. The televised contest to judge the most incredible thing has an amusing trio of video judges, whose reactions actually take your eyes off the staging of the individual attempts to win. These attempts are staged, for some reason, as silhouettes behind a screen, which has the effect of stylising them and making them remote. I can’t imagine the TV audience and indeed the judges would be impressed with that as a show; and what I think could have been an opportunity for some lavish and comic choreography was lost.
However, the big dull point is the revelation of Leo’s clock. Each of the twelve hours is acted/danced out by the characters that make up the clock – Adam, Adam and Eve, Sun Moon and Stars, Four Seasons, Five Senses, and so on. There’s no real way out of this as this is at the heart of Andersen’s original tale. Boy does it go on, though. It was about this time that Mrs C gave up the will to stay awake. You know they’re Adam and Eve, incidentally, because they have the names “Adam” and “Eve” written on their undies. I would have thought fig-leaf costumes would have been more appropriate. If you don’t mind, I really don’t want to recollect the enactments of the remaining clock numbers as life is too short. At the end of this sequence a screen bombards us with about 300 names of writers, artists and the like – for no apparent reason – but which the programme says the creative team hope we will spend the interval discussing whether or not we agree with their list of them being incredible people. No. When your strength is sapped by a dull sequence of dances all about a clock, being bombarded with names is just a violent attack on the eyes of the poor audience. Discussing them is the last thing on your mind.
Ivan Putrov makes a good Karl, looking a little like a young Wayne Sleep, but I felt he was restricted by the uninspiring, robotic choreography he was given. Clemmie Sveass’ Princess looked great and gave us flashes of what could have been a much better ballet on the few occasions when she was allowed to do some proper dancing. There’s a nice (regrettably brief) early scene where she is dancing to pop music in her bedroom, and she also has a good scene with Leo where she convinces the King to allow him to compete for her hand. As Leo, Aaron Sillas spends nearly all the show looking like a needy geek rather than the “dreamer” that the programme would have you believe he is. His dancing is fantastic, but a performer of his versatility must feel so repressed having to wear that one facial expression – startled rabbit – throughout the production.
So what does this show tell us of the human condition? Absolutely nothing. It’s a bundle of very pretty packaging but with nothing inside. Actually, Mrs C found its saccharine sweetness thoroughly nauseating. To be fair, there was a reasonably amount of (the now statutory) whooping and cheering at the final curtain call – although the interval applause was desultory. So, as you can tell, we pretty much hated it. I have no doubt this will continue to have a life after this production – I predict the big names headlining the creative team will ensure it does good box office if it tours. If you see it, I really hope you enjoy it, like we have enjoyed other pieces by Mr de Frutos. We won’t be seeing it again.