Posted on March 28, 2018
The Most Incredible Thing
Charlotte Ballet, Knight Theater, Charlotte – March 10, 2018
The most incredible thing has always been that tomorrow is another day. The trials and tribulations of one day can be replaced with the triumph of the next. So it was for Charlotte Ballet, now under the artistic leadership of Hope Muir. It’s much-anticipated US premiere of a ballet created for Sadler’s Wells by Javier De Frutos and the Pet Shop Boys was cancelled at short notice due to a technical problem, as was the following day’s matinée. Thanks to FedEx, however, and the express delivery of a new “part” (ironic for a city that hosts the headquarters of Wells Fargo), the anguish of the opening gave way to a theatre-wide standing ovation 24 hours later.
Canadian-born Muir is well remembered as a dancer with London Festival Ballet and Rambert who, before heading back across the Atlantic, was Christopher Hampson’s assistant director at Scottish Ballet. She took up her new post last July, and one of her first ambitions was to bring into the repertoire a family-friendly ballet that would also appeal to adults. The Most Incredible Thing ticked all the boxes, but it hadn’t been performed since 2012, and – with considerable detective work (De Frutos described it as “CSI Charlotte”) – the director and choreographer set about successfully tracking down Katrina Lindsay’s costumes. Sadly, the original sets had been destroyed.
It’s a most wonderful thing this ballet – based upon a little-known fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen – has been revived and enhanced. The story, the music, the choreography and the film content all combine to create an entertaining two-act work that deserves to become established in at least one repertoire company. The substantial alterations made between the 2011 premiere and the following season’s revival have been retained, with further subtle changes also made, principally through the engagement of Renée Jaworski, co-artistic director of Pilobolus, as a special choreographic consultant (supported by art director, Greggory Laffey). De Frutos referenced several different dance forms and classic works in the original production, one of which was a pastiche of black light or shadow theatre (for which Pilobolus, Momix and Prague are famous). It was an aspect that didn’t work so well before, but by using the specific expertise of Pilobolus (by teaching the Charlotte dancers the techniques of shadow theatre), the tightness of the core section of the work has been greatly improved.
Mischievous humour is attached to the many dance references, both fleeting and substantial, throughout the choreography. The Seven Deadly Sins – ballerinas at the barre, labelled individually with each sin – are taken through a Bob Fosse-style routine by a narcissistic dance captain; the layering of heads horizontally on top of the other by a group of maidservants in headscarves is a precise mimic of Nijinska’s Les Noces; the evil Karl appears to replicate some of the back-bending, athletic leaps of the evil Crassus in Spartacus; the dance for the heroic Leo and his three muses resonates Balanchine’s Apollo; and there are cameo references to Martha Graham and other choreographic luminaries.
It would be entirely wrong, however, to suggest the choreography is in any way derivative. De Frutos is a prolific choreographer who covers a vast landscape of form, but despite his considerable output The Most Incredible Thing opened the door to a new dimension in his craft. It can be seen to greatest effect in the softness of sentiment and romance in the two pas de deux for Leo and the Princess (essentially the same duet but with greater confidence and abandon in the reprise), the articulate storytelling in movement and gesture in the pas de deux for the Princess and Karl, and the sense of place and occasion given to the movements of the corps de ballet. We know De Frutos as a maker of powerful, one-act thematic dances, often playing against the norm with varying surfaces and heights, but The Most Incredible Thing proves his credentials as an eloquent creator of descriptive dance that translates a narrative into movement with clarity and seductive charm.
The Pet Shop Boys’ score is equally outstanding, with the luscious and enchanting melody for the two romantic pas de deux occasioning a calming, spine-tingling frisson each time the opening bars are heard. Sensitively matched by De Frutos’ flowing choreography, the music creates an unforgettable highlight at the end of each act. The level of co-operation between composers (Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe) and choreographer appears to have been considerable, as the descriptive themes in the music invariably dovetail with the characterisations and movement.
Tal Rosner’s film and animation – alongside Lucy Carter’s lighting – are elements that remain largely unchanged from 2011. Rosner’s tongue-in-cheek satire on a reality show judging panel that is linked to absurd commercial sponsorship is key to the overarching humour. It is clever and integral to the ballet, and De Frutos’ enhancement of Leo’s clock (which initially wins the King’s contest to find The Most Incredible Thing) with the addition of Apollo 11 as the representation of the eleventh hour on its face was clearly appreciated by the American audience. The moral of the story comes in the epilogue, shown on film, which portrays Leo and the Princess celebrating 50 years of marital bliss. There is a touching legacy from the original Sadler’s Wells production, here, because it is Jenny Sveaas, mother of the original princess (Clemmie Sveaas), who still appears as the golden-wedding celebrant.
On this evidence, Muir has inherited an exceptional group of dancers. It’s a small company, just 20-strong (with another eight in a junior group, Charlotte Ballet II), but they took their challenging roles with aplomb, both technically and in terms of characterisation. Anson Zwingelberg brought an unmistakeable air of Oswald Mosley to Karl the Destroyer, a clipped, pencil-thin moustache adding a sinister edge to his pallid complexion. Josh Hall was a free-spirited Leo the Creator, more absent-minded professor than gladiatorial hunk, appearing more as a colourful “poet” in a nation full of grey people controlled by Karl’s jackbooted thugs. Chelsea Dumas brought a delightful sense of freedom to the Princess, exasperating her father the King (James Kopecky) with her bedroom dancing along to the latest pop idol that sounds, of course, just like the Pet Shop Boys. Initially she is tempted by a relationship with Karl, but is finally won over by true love. It is she who inspires Leo to make The Most Incredible Thing, and Dumas leaves the audience certain this princess is definitely a prize well worth the perseverance.
Alessandra Ball James, Amelia Sturt-Dilley and Sarah Hayes Harkins were well matched as three sexy muses who help inspire Leo’s creativity, and special mention is due to Sarah Lapointe for her charismatic portrayal of the contest’s over-the-top TV compere. The whole ensemble deserved the standing ovations it received at both shows I attended.
This production has evolved impressively, with De Frutos making changes that add clarity, style and purpose. It is slick, fast-paced, funny, poignant and unashamedly romantic, and provides an uncomplicated entertainment for children and their parents (and grandparents). The whole experience was enhanced by Charlotte Ballet’s marketing team, who filled the foyer with jugglers, fancy dress, colouring competitions and much more. It was a lesson in how to attract and keep a young audience interested in ballet.
Pictured: Charlotte Ballet’s The Most Incredible Thing, with Josh Hall as Leo, and Alessandra Ball James, Amelia Sturt-Dilley and Sarah Hayes Harkins as the Three Muses. Photograph by Jeff Cravotta.