The Most Incredible Thing – review

Sadler's Wells, London

The Venezuelan-born choreographer Javier de Frutos is a volatile talent. At its best, in pieces such as Paseillo and Nopalitos, his work has a dream-like intensity and strangeness. Sexual identities are ambiguous, and the atmosphere tense with obscure ritual. In The Most Incredible Thing, a three-act dance work based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy story, he joins forces with Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, and the result is at once spectacular and chilly. Aided by Metrosexuality designer Katrina Lindsay, Tennant and Lowe have located the story in a Soviet dystopia modelled on Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Their music is dramatically textured, the choreography is deft and referential (Balanchine, Jooss, Nijinska) and the filmic effects come thick and fast.

Somewhere in this high-concept deluge, Andersen's poignant tale is lost. As delicate in structure as the paper cutouts with which the writer entertained his friends, and which Lindsay references in her designs, the story illustrates the transformative power of love. Had Tennant and Lowe been creating a musical about the private life of Princess Margaret, or a disco version of the Book of Revelations, the arch, bombastic tone would have been spot on. Here, it is alienating and typical of an essentially narcissistic school of production in which fundamentals of characterisation and story structure are neglected in favour of postmodern hyperstyling. As effect succeeds effect, the lovers (Aaron Sillis and Clemmie Sveaas) remain wholly remote from us, and the vital plot reversal is fudged. There are compensations. The 17-strong dance cast is excellent, and de Frutos's expressionistic choreography has a knowing edge. There's a memorable scene in which the fascistic villain, danced with glittering-eyed relish by former Royal Ballet principal Ivan Putrov, is rough-housing with his black-shirted sidekicks, and the nastier the action gets, the more he enjoys it. This is home turf for de Frutos, and I was reminded of Los Picadores, his brutal S&M take on Stravinsky's Les noces. It's all some distance from the world conjured by Andersen, however, and those hoping for enchantment will be disappointed.


Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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