Before we start, a brief aside: as we settled into the Dress Circle, we became aware of a collective sway of attention towards the left-most edge of our bank of seats. Once upon a time, the mass spotting of a celebrity made a chattering, gasping, giggling noise. These days, it makes a click-whirr sound, as a dozen or more camera phones point themselves in one direction and their owners line up behind in fierce concentration. It’s a funny effect, seeing all the little black squares lifted in tandem, like some kind of choreographed move. And no, not completely out of tune with seeing a modern ballet full of technical wizardry, I suppose.
And it was the last night of a very short run of this big artistic event: the Pet Shop Boys doing a ballet, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story ‘The Most Incredible Thing’. So naturally there were a few celebs in, and I was glad we were with them. I remember reading about the concept last year and thought it was a thoroughly good idea. I had a vague memory that the PSB had done something like this before – a musical called Closer to Heaven, when I looked it up. It wasn’t much of a success, but I thought their music would be fabulous for modern dance. It’s so sharp, pulsating, the moods easy to read and translate. But I did fear that the music would get watered down, that there would be some orchestral rendering of West End Girls or something ghastly like that. And when I heard the orchestra thrum into life for a fairly conventional overture I was a bit disappointed. The moment the ballet itself began, I realised the joke. Real Pet Shop Boys music started booming out – not the hits, but a new score, actually played by the orchestra. I realised that synthesisers *of course* synthesise real instruments, and with the help of just a couple of mixing desks, the orchestra was the analogue source of a distinctly digital PSB sound. And the overture was a tease, introducing the love themes in classic ballet style.
Of course there was also the dancing; this is Sadler’s Wells after all. It was consistently good to excellent. The choreographer, Javier de Frutos, managed to create the mobile equivalent of an earworm within the first few minutes of the piece, introducing a sharp and compelling sort-of-slidy move which, yes, we copied several times later that evening, and which almost certainly didn’t have a classical French ballet name. And I must admit this punchiness matters to me, perhaps more than to most. I really like dance when it comes across as a true expression of the music rather than ‘exhibited’ like a rhythmic gymnastics routine designed to score points with the judges whilst being only vaguely linked to the background music – and my least favourite moments of the evening were the romantic interludes that were less tight, more floaty. I think that’s why Torville and Dean were so successful in Ravel’s Bolero – they were technically extraordinary but for the first time in ice dance, it really looked as if they were were moving in response to the music. And honestly, I find a lot of modern dance is more focused on demonstrating technical excellence or out-of-the-box creativity than it is a pure fusion with the music. That’s why the idea of a ballet conceptualised by the composers – here, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe – is so interesting. In the past, composers like Stravinsky had great mutually supportive relationships with choreographers like Diaghilev – and those ballets are amongst the most consistently compelling in the repertoire too.
So what else was good? The Russian lead, Ivan Putrov, played the baddie with precision and ferocity, and shone every time he was on stage. The Princess, Clemmie Sveaas, was extraordinarily expressive. She moved me to tears on two occasions and laughter on another. The film and animation was a work of art in its own right, illustrating the idea of a clock that contains all of human experience in each of its 12 numerals – not the easiest brief, and it was spellbinding (though I admit it wasn’t until number 5 that I got what was going on). Look out for Tal Rosner, whose genius lay behind that.
You might be wondering why I’m bothering to write a review for something that has just finished. Well, it got a completely genuine, heartfelt standing ovation, and I’m hoping you’ll have a chance to see it another time. It will surely tour, you are not always in London, and they may be back. After all, the Rite of Spring is still going strong.
Post script: it turned out that the celeb at the end of our row was indeed Neil Tennant himself. Once we started shambling out of our seats, and the less attuned of us finally clocked who he was, people spontaneously did their own little standing ovation just for him. Would have been a sin not to.