After watching the YouTube video of choreographer Javier de Frutos' adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Most Incredible Thing in its original 2011 Sadler's Wells production, I had to wonder how much of this dazzling spectacle Charlotte Ballet artistic director Hope Muir could deliver at Knight Theater. Although villainous Karl the Destroyer was danced by Ivan Putrov in London with devastating panache, and Clemmie Sveaas as the Princess – offered along with half the kingdom by her father, The King, to the creator of the most incredible thing – was a marvel of spasmodic anguish, I had little doubt that their American counterparts, Anson Zwingelberg and Chelsea Dumas, would shine as brightly. My doubts centered on Knight Theater itself. Incorporating so many movable set pieces by Katrina Lindsay (who also designed costumes), studded with challenging video installations to accommodate film and animation by Tal Rosner, The Most Incredible Thing would test the Knight's capabilities beyond anything I'd witnessed there since the facility opened in 2009, including The Aluminum Show, Momix, Avenue Q, and Peter and the Starcatcher. To be honest, The Most Incredible Thing is more collaborative and ambitious than most full-length ballets or even new operas, for it has so much more baked into it than the de Frutos choreography and an original score by the Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Film and animation have to be delivered – onto screens and scrims – with even more pinpoint accuracy than the dancing.
Ominously, the opening night performance and the ensuing Saturday matinee were canceled "due to mechanical failure." Announcements appeared at the Charlotte Ballet website, on the company's Twitter account, and on their Facebook page – the latter time-stamped at 5:07 pm on the evening of the performance. So, until I took my seat at the Saturday evening performance, I really hadn't known that I was attending the opening night of the American premiere of The Most Incredible Thing. An usher delivered the news instead of Charlotte Ballet's PR rep. There was a bit more tension and drama to this performance than I had anticipated!
As it turned out, the most significant modifications that I noticed in Act One appeared to result from deliberate changes by de Frutos to his choreography and Zwingelberg's approach to Karl. In contrast with Putrov's charismatic take on Karl, reminding me of vintage Baryshnikov and Lucas Steele's recent Broadway portrayal of Prince Anatol in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Zwingelberg was more angular and Machiavellian, his eyes blackened to emphasize his menace. Yet perhaps nodding to the fact that his piece now occupies a slot in Charlotte Ballet's season normally filled by such fairy fluff as Cinderella and Peter Pan, de Frutos has softened Karl somewhat so that he no longer brutalizes his henchmen before his abortive attempt to seduce The Princess. Instead of a talking TV emcee entering with a hand-held microphone, the Charlotte Ballet version has Sarah Lapointe mutely dancing the role in sync with the Emcee's prerecorded patter. The entire staging of The King's contest was radically altered, with silhouetted contestants projected on a center stage scrim and new video supplanting some of the original views of the judges (carried over from the Sadler's Wells version in its quaint silent film black-and-white). Instead of hundreds of hopefuls vying for The Princess's hand, the cosmic number of contestants rose well past 10 billion as the video faded out.
All of these alterations worked remarkably well, but what brought us more grandly to intermission was the decision to delay the break until after Leo the Creator, already backed and beloved by The Princess, demonstrates his miraculous watch. As the watchmaker, Josh Hall abandoned the tortured artist mien of the London protagonist in favor of a more wholesome interpretation – the miraculous watch sprang to life from his hands as a phenomenal wonder even to himself rather than as an agonizing pang of giving birth. And the Rosner video, interspersed with live dancing, was an undeniable wonder. Rising and falling while constantly displaying the steady flow of animations, the huge clock proved to be an electronic video screen rather than a cloth projection screen, maybe the largest circular TV that I've ever seen, including the movie version of The Wizard of Oz. Blowing away at least half of Andersen's concept of what each digit on the clock represents, de Frutos and Rosner made it a retrospective of all human history, beginning with Adam as 1 and Eve as 2. Lindsay got into the act here with skimpier costumes for Adam and Eve that paradoxically supplied their full names instead of their initials, and when we reached 4 o'clock, she abetted de Frutos's altered choreography by labeling the dancers' slacks with the names of the four seasons, adding clarity to the previously abstract episode.
Even as de Frutos contrived to make this Charlotte Ballet version more family-friendly, the watchmaker's demo grew majestically in power during its second half. Echoing the "Big Spender" number from Sweet Charity, the depiction of the Seven Deadly Sins, also newly labeled, featured seven sultry female dancers – some of whom were actually men in red wigs – with white-gloved "Fosse hands." Eight was a play on the musical octave that not everyone will catch onto, and 9 o'clock signaled the presentation of prenatal video, referencing the months of pregnancy. Ten was the last borrowing from Andersen, presenting the Ten Commandments, with ten dancers splayed around Moses shifting their formations as an overhead view of them flashed on the clock face. From there, we blasted off to video of Apollo 11 and man's first walk on the moon. With a Zarathustra-like swell in the musical score, 12 climaxed Leo's demonstration by summing it all up – with some 300 names of great artists flashing onto the screen to underscore the overall theme of creation.
Emerging from Knight Theater for the single intermission (three acts have been reconfigured into two), I had no doubt that what I'd already seen far eclipsed the technical sophistication of any show previously presented at that venue. In fact, Matthew Bourne's ballyhooed adaptation of The Red Shoes, which toured Charlotte back in October at Belk Theater, seemed puny in its technical ambitions by comparison and clumsy in its storytelling. Everything ran with nearly absolute precision at Knight Theater, so it was reasonable to assume that any "mechanical failure" had been conquered. Nor were there any indications that last-minute alterations were necessitated anywhere in Act Two, when Leo's happily-ever-after victory in the contest was dramatically detoured – but not ultimately destroyed – by Karl the Destroyer. Karl ambushes the lovebirds backstage, seizes and destroys Leo's miraculous watch, and the contest judges, consulting their rules, have to declare that destroying the most incredible thing is more prize worthy than creating it.
When the kingdom fell into a desperate gloom after this twist of events, the lighting motif by designer Lucy Carter was still a lurid red, but most of the bloody elements of the video depicting the devastation had been discreetly muted or removed. On the other hand, when the Three Muses who helped inspire the marvelous clock returned to rebuild it, they now had supersized scissors to cut the villain into bits and spring Leo from prison. All of this magic and good fortune – with encore video on the big clock – was crowned with a joyous wedding celebration. The regimented citizens who had previously danced robotically back and forth to their places at a long table now tossed confetti with equal precision at the wedding. On Saturday, that was the only hazardous scene in the entire show, for Hall nearly slipped on the confetti afterwards when he trotted out to take his bows.
The battle between divine creativity and brute force played out beautifully in this edgy extravaganza, the Tennant-Lowe score nearly as nuanced as the de Frutos choreography. In her starring role, Dumas mostly danced hostile pas de deuxs with Karl or her father, relaxing and showing her potential for joy only intermittently with Leo. Her black wedding with Karl was the deepest thing in the piece, for it was here that de Frutos tapped into the heart of his scenario, linking the robotic citizens of the despotic kingdom with the incredible watch that might ultimately liberate them. In this black wedding, there were moments when the women circled around the men like arms of a clock, Karl towering above them all, and there was a sequence when we saw couples dancing in place, moving around each other like wooden brides and grooms on a medieval town clock tolling the hour. We were not only seeing a somber variant on the townspeople's precision movement but a foreshadowing of the miraculous return of Leo's clock.
The supporting roles were all superbly danced, including Lapointe as Emcee, Drew Grant as Adam, and Raven Barkley as Eve. Anyone seeing Charlotte Ballet for the first time will not be surprised to learn that each of the Three Muses – Amelia Sturt-Dilley as Concentration, Sarah Hayes Harkins as Love, and Alessandra James as Courage – have danced leading roles for the company in the past. As the kingdom's drones, Karl's henchmen, and numerous other cameos, 18 other members of Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II also populated the stage. Almost as impressive in this complex collaboration, they frequently acted as stagehands, setting up, disassembling, or merely reconfiguring scenery pieces and scrims so that this sensory assault never drifted out of sync with the Pet Shop Boys' prerecorded soundtrack. The Most Incredible Thing may be the most hyped title you'll ever encounter, but this Charlotte Ballet production often made it seem like a casual description. Despite the alarm of its sudden opening night cancellation, it was running like clockwork the following evening, far more vivid and moving in live performance than on YouTube.
The Most Incredible Thing continues through March 18. See our sidebar for details.