It takes a lot to get me to go to the ballet. It’s not that I don’t like it, exactly: more that there’s always something else I’m more excited about seeing. But the promising combination of a story by Hans Christian Andersen and music by the Pet Shop Boys lured me in and I’m glad it did, because whenever I go to the ballet I remember that dance can be a startlingly alien and riveting experience which is completely unlike anything else at all.
I didn’t know the story before I went in, which is something that always worries me a bit when it comes to ballet: I still remember the time I saw Coppélia and didn’t realise that Swanhilde was pretending to be the doll in the second half, resulting in all sorts of confusion until I went away and read a synopsis of the plot. The Most Incredible Thing gets around this problem by cheating slightly and introducing words, which mostly works although it occasionally seems heavy-handed, but it did at least mean that I always knew what was happening.
Mostly, though, what surprised me – in a good way – about it was how traditional it was. I was expecting something avant-garde and experimental, but despite the lavish use of special effects, this was very much a figurative show rather than an abstract one, with proper sets and costumes, making it the kind of ballet you could take a child to (though nobody did on the night I went), which is my favourite sort, my knowledge and understanding of dance being limited to things I have learned from watching Strictly Come Dancing.
But it’s the very unfamiliarity of ballet that I find so engaging: I look at the bodies and I can’t begin to imagine how they do what they do, or what the people who live inside them must be like the rest of the time. You feel you can get the measure of actors, or singers, but never dancers. This was made especially explicit during the second act, which is a stunning piece of kaleidoscopic choreography where bodies become detached from their human life entirely and turn into mechanical elements of a vast machine whose music and imagery is still whirring around my brain a week later. I can’t begin to describe it so I shan’t try, but it was beautifully and cleverly done, and it was that section, rather than any of the narrative segments, that stood out as the highlight.
That said, the dancers playing the main characters gave an engaging and watchable performance, and the choreography by Javier De Frutos gave them each the space to develop personalities of their own (I especially liked the baddie, although the swaying, rippling princess is the real star of the piece).
This was a ten-night run which sold out before it started, but I hope it comes back for a longer season at Sadler’s Wells (which is, incidentally, one of London’s few well-designed theatres, where you can see the stage unobstructed from nearly every seat). And when it does, you should definitely go and see it, even if you think you don’t like ballet.*
* Though possibly not if you don’t like the Pet Shop Boys, because the music sounds a LOT like the Pet Shop Boys, despite the lack of the distinctive keyboard sound which is officially called “orchestra hit” even though I always think it’s called “electro bang”, which is a much more appropriate name for it. But if you don’t like the Pet Shop Boys then you and I will never see eye to eye anyway, I’m afraid.