mnmlist: Playing to their Strengths: Pet Shop Boys do the ballet

The ballet is a 15th century invention which has meant very little to me other than strange stirrings as a youth when some tights-wearing dancer threatened to take someone’s eye out with his manbits as he leapt about to Tchaikovsky. To paraphrase Moz, I had to say that ballet said nothing to me about my life so I settled for the cheap pop thrills that later lead to more complex pop thrills. Dance does not figure.

Pet Shop Boys are no strangers to either cheap or complex pop thrills which is why they continue to reward attention some 25 years after West End Girls hit no. 1. As pop’s brainy elder statesmen, they’ve been sticking their fingers into all sorts of cultural pies with varying results. Their core characteristics remain consistent throughout: electronic dance pop with aspiration: “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat”.

Their clumsy musical Closer to Heaven was a rare stinker but their 2004 soundtrack to 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin was rather better executed and received. Still, I learned of their foray into the ballet with a mixture of apathy and dread. I booked tickets anyway. Sadler’s Wells is a delightful place and a mere 15 mins walk. What the hell.

I need not mention that I am an avid fan of the PSB. A friend described me as follows in an email this morning: “I suspect that if they sat there throwing toddlers at a cheese grate you would still love it, you PSB whore you.” I agree (but then again what artist could fail to impress with such a routine?)

The Most Incredible Thing is a piece based on a late short story by Hans Christian Anderson, scored by Tennant & Lowe with choreography by Javier De Frutos (who said in a post show Q&A last night that it was the first time he had worked with composers who were not dead).

Javier De Frutos

The thing works very very well. PSB play to their strengths – pulsing beats, synths and proper melodic hooks. The choreography (not that I know anything about it) seemed emotional and often mesmerising. The special effects (most notably the astonishing clock sequence in Act II) were beautiful and, yes, incredible. It wasn’t all perfect: at times I had no idea what was going on (and I had read the story), there is no need for two intervals, and the ending was a little anticlimactic.

So, I was exhilarated by a ballet after all these years. How did that happen? My theory is that at least part of it wasn’t alien allowing me to more easily appreciate the unfamiliar. After 25 years of PSB soundtracking my life, the 4/4 electronics are signifiers I don’t need to work hard on to understand (unlike, say, classical music). I could pay more attention to the dance; I had an ‘in’.

De Frutos & Pet Shop Boys take questions from the audience.

The previous show I saw at Sadler’s Wells was Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna. Rufus would be up there with PSB as one of my more cherished artists and I think he is ridiculously talented, but his opera wasn’t great. Unlike PSB, Rufus seemed to sacrifice his stellar abilities as a producer of huge, melodic ‘Baroque’ pop and instead wrote a fiddly, stilted ‘traditional’ opera. (Quite how he could write an opera about a fading diva and not include at least four outrageously epic arias is beyond me.)

Pet Shop Boys remembered their core competencies of dance and ambition and have opened a very enjoyable gateway the ballet for anyone else who needs an introduction. It’s sold out at Sadler’s Wells but I suspect it will be back.

(Oh and while there’s no ‘hamster-stuffed-down-tights’ bouncing about, there are plenty of attractive men – and women- with tight clothing should you need further enticing).

The Most Incredible Thing runs at Sadlers Wells until 26th March and is sold out.

The music is available for download or in a very handsomely-bound double CD with booklet.