De Frutos and Pet Shop Boys reach for the moon

Pet Shop Boys and dance maverick Javier de Frutos

have turned a Hans Christian Andersen story into a ballet.

How did the moon landings end up in there?

Javier de Frutos and Neil Tennant are on their second glass of wine, and getting very emotional about Desert Island Discs. De Frutos, the Venezuelan-born choreographer, has delivered a passionate explanation of why he could never limit his musical choices to eight. Tennant, frontman of the Pet Shop Boys, is quietly triumphant about once being asked to do it. ‘Being on that programme was one of the best things in my life. I started with She Loves You. When I was nine, I just wanted to be that music. Then I had Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. I remember being unable to believe those harmonies.’

The two men, seated at the Groucho Club in London, are meant to be discussing their new collaboration, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story The Most Incredible Thing, about a competition to create exactly that. But the collaboration is a pretty remarkable thing in itself: the Pet Shop Boys’ first attempt at composing a ballet score, and De Frutos’s first full-length narrative dance. It’s hard to keep them on topic, though. One minute they’re expounding the ballet’s underlying theme, the life-changing power of art, the next they’re off on a tangent: everything from the fall of dictators to Noël Coward and the potency of cheap music. I’m privately grateful that Chris Lowe, the other Pet Shop Boy, is in bed nursing a cold. These two are handful enough.

It was Lowe, however, who first saw the potential of the Andersen tale. In 2007, the Boys had been reading Andersen’s stories in a new translation. ‘Chris phoned me up to say he’d found one that would work as a ballet,’ says Tennant. Although the story was short, he adds, ‘it read like this great pitch for a ballet’.

The two had been considering composing a dance score for some time. ‘When you have a long career like ours,’ says Tennant, ‘you have to keep things fresh. You have to be excited and smiling and scared shitless about something.’ Having written a West End musical (2001’s Closer to Heaven) and a film score (for Battleship Potemkin in 2005), a ballet seemed the next logical step.

Their interest had also been aroused by Ivan Putrov, the then Royal Ballet principal. ‘We started going to see Ivan perform,’ says Tennant, ‘and we became very curious as to why classical ballet had remained so traditional in the way it looks. It hadn’t gone through what I call the abattoir phase, as opera had in the 1980s, where everything was updated. So we were interested in writing a three-act ballet in the tradition of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, but with modern music and choreography. We didn’t want to compose cod classical music – we wanted to write a ballet in our own style.’

Sure of little beyond the fact they wanted Putrov as their leading dancer, the Boys took their idea to Sadler’s Wells, and ended up with playwright and director Matthew Dunster as dramaturge, and De Frutos as choreographer. This could have been a problem. The ballet was to be family entertainment, and that’s hardly natural territory for De Frutos, given the early solos in which he performed naked, and the glittering assault he made on the Catholic church in his 2009 work Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez. The latter earned him death threats.

But De Frutos has a gift for crafting poetic, sophisticated dance, and has successfully collaborated on several big productions. In 2007, his choreography for the West End musical Cabaret won him an Olivier. The Boys were impressed. ‘We instantly liked the sound of his name,’ says Tennant ‘so we looked at some videos of his work.’

‘And they were not afraid,’ butts in De Frutos.

Andersen’s story hinges on a contest held by a king, who offers his daughter and half his kingdom to whoever can show him ‘the most incredible thing’. A young man builds a clock that magically contains the whole world. But before he can claim his prize, the clock is smashed by a blacksmith who argues that destroying such a wonder is an even more incredible thing than creating it. As the judges reluctantly concur, the shattered parts of the clock come back to life and take their revenge.

‘It’s such a profound story,’ says Tennant of the three-page tale. ‘It’s basically saying you can destroy an object, but you can’t destroy an idea.’ He and Lowe were moved to discover that the story had been secretly distributed by the Danish resistance during the Nazi occupation. Yet they were equally enchanted by the comic, folksy world it portrays. ‘It unfolds with incredible energy,’ adds Tennant. ‘In the beginning, when everyone in the kingdom is trying to do the most incredible thing, there is this one line, ‘Small boys tried to spit on their backs’. It’s a brilliant image – the idea that to a boy that’s the most incredible thing.’

De Frutos agrees. ‘There’s so much in there, three acts don’t feel enough,’ says the choreographer, who has revelled in exploring all its theatrical possibilities. The second act centres on the magic of the clock, the design of which was inspired by The Weather Project, Olafur Eliasson’s evanescently beautiful 2003 installation that brought a glowing sun to Tate Modern; the clock’s marvellous contents are evoked by dance and film. These include landmark moments from history, like the Apollo 11 moon landing, and great works of art, among them ballets that De Frutos references in his own choreography.

The princess, a curiously deadpan character in the original, has been turned into a rebel. ‘I’ve based her on Princess Caroline of Monaco, the original bad princess,’ says De Frutos. It’s an act of homage inspired by the fact that, when Princess Caroline came to a performance of Eternal Damnation, she ‘made a bee line’ for the cast afterwards. ‘She said she’d loved the work and we all absolutely had to come to her party.’ De Frutos cast Putrov as the blacksmith: while he’s enjoyed showcasing the dancer’s burnished, classical technique, he’s also been ‘releasing Ivan’s inner bully’, hiring a fight trainer to help him through his assault on the artist/clockmaker.

And now for 10 other ballets

Tennant, too, faced new challenges. ‘Writing for a ballet is very different from writing pop songs. We have to work with much longer melodic lines and invent different musical themes for the characters. I had to get out the whole score of Romeo and Juliet to see how Prokofiev got from one scene to another, how he introduced different melodies.’

The scale of the score, written for electronic instruments and live orchestra, has opened up fascinating possibilities. ‘Chris and I both love woodwind, so we’ve been able to include lots of oboe and clarinet. We’ve experimented with different chords and harmonies. There’s this one scale, the ‘Rimsky-Korsakov scale’, which is basically tone, semi-tone, tone, and gives a completely different quality.’

So galvanised are the Boys by their ballet, they’ve got a list of 10 others they want to write, starting with The Emperor’s New Clothes.

‘Javier can dance the Emperor and be naked throughout,’ grins Tennant, flirtatiously.

‘Oh,’ says De Frutos, sitting beside him on the sofa, ‘everybody’s seen my bits already.’

‘But Chris and I haven’t.’

How do they feel about Paul McCartney’s recent announcement that he, too, has written a ballet score? ‘I’m slightly annoyed,’ admits Tennant, ‘that we’re suddenly being seen as part of a trend.’ He and De Frutos would argue that, far from being a novelty, they’re part of a long tradition, going right back to the collaborations of Petipa and Tchaikovsky and beyond. ‘Tchaikovsky wrote the pop music of the day,’ says De Frutos. ‘Everyone hummed his tunes, bought his scores and played them at home.’

‘Every Tchaikovsky ballet, it’s a fucking greatest hits album,’ interrupts Tennant. ‘This is what Chris and I have always done, giving ourselves new experiences, extending the boundaries of our music. There’s no point doing something unless it’s a thrill.’

Taken from:
Interviewer: Judith Mackrell