Pet Shop Boys’ Newest Venture: Ballet

Pet Shop Boys broke out nearly three decades ago with the smash ‘West End Girls,’ but when singer and keyboardist Neil Tennant recently spoke with Spinner his attention was focused on East London, where rehearsals were underway for ‘The Most Incredible Thing,’ he and bandmate Chris Lowe’s first-ever foray into ballet. The show runs at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theater from March 17 to 26.

The British electro-pop duo wrote the music for the production — based on a Hans Christian Andersen short story — after acclaimed dancer Ivan Putrov approached Tennant with the idea of doing a ballet. Having already penned a musical and film score, the ambitious hit makers accepted the challenge, enlisting director Matthew Dunster to map out the story and German composer Sven Helbig to write orchestrations.

Chatting with Spinner, Tennant discussed the difference between writing pop songs and ballet scores and explained why classical dancers aren’t as stuffy as you might think.

The show opens March 17. Are you nervous, excited or both?

I’m nervous about it, but I’m excited. [Chris and I] finished our work on the show around Christmas, when we finished the album, and we gave them the finished mix and everything at the beginning of January. We haven’t been in London most of the time, writing the next album. We’ve been letting them get on with it. But I went to rehearsals, which are in East London, and it was looking pretty exciting, I must say. It’s a show about music and dance, and both of those elements are of paramount importance. They’re doing a wonderful job.

Prior to Ivan Putov approaching you with this idea, had you ever thought of writing a ballet? Are you even a fan of ballet?

I grew up in Newcastle, and the Royal Ballet used to come to Newcastle each year. My mother used to take us, because she likes ballet and I quite liked it. When I was 10, I said I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I got a book out of the library called ‘Teach Yourself Ballet,’ and I forced my brother to try to and learn ballet moves with me. This lasted about three weeks. It’s funny what you end up doing, isn’t it?

We often used to go to the Royal Ballet to see Ivan in various ballets, like ‘Swan Lake,’ or something more modern. It was watching these classical ballets like ‘Swan Lake,’ which have very traditional productions, that we wondered whether it was possible to take the form of classic ballet — three acts — and do it with modern contemporary music, or pop music, or some variation of pop music, and with modern choreography. That was what interested us. That was really the inspiration behind it. We’ve always had the combination of music and theater, and since the beginning of our career, we’ve always worked with directors in theater and choreographers. Our first big tour in America, we had a contemporary ballet choreographer do that for us. It feels natural.

Your collaborator Matthew Dunster mapped out the story, but prior to receiving that, did you have an idea of how you were going to approach the music?

We needed his roadmap, just to know what we were writing. I originally assumed we would just work it out ourselves, actually, but we sat down and talked about it with Matthew a lot, and he came up with this 16-page synopsis. The original story is only [a few pages]. We fleshed out the characters and gave it the scenes and the structure. We needed that. It’s a bit like writing a film score in that respect, but more involved, because some of the character is in your music. Some of the characters’ character is in your music.

The music is heavily orchestrated, but there are elements of classic Pet Shop Boys pop. Was it a conscious thing, mixing the two?

It’s a bit like [our score for the film] ‘Battleship Potemkin.’ It’s instrumental, pretty much. Otherwise, Chris and I are always writing songs with words, and that’s really interesting and different to do. [With this], you’re concentrating much more on melodies and the development of melodies and harmonies and the orchestral combination of instruments. It’s quite different from making a Pet Shop Boys record. Every now and then, you get something which is almost like a song with no words. There’s a track called ‘The Meeting,’ which is something we had lying around for ages. It’s a really strong tune, and I honestly could never think of any words, but it was perfect for this scene where the artist meets the princess. If you heard that, you’d think it sounds very Pet Shop Boys. In our music, we’ve always used a lot of orchestral samples and string leads.

What’s different from writing pop songs is how the music develops in one scene. New melodies come in, and there are themes for characters. We were trying to do things you can’t do in pop music — use slightly weirder harmonies and experiments like that. When we gave the music to Sven, he said, ‘God, you’ve done quite a lot of the work.’

When you gave the music to the dancers, what was their reaction?

The reaction was great. You’d be surprised — the dance world is much less stuffy than you might think. There are people in this ballet who are classically trained dancers, but they’ve been on ‘X Factor’ dancing behind whomever.

It’s quite common for contemporary choruses to do pieces to rock music or popular music. Famously, Michael Clark has done pieces to the Fall and the Sex Pistols and maybe David Bowie’s music. It’s not that unusual for people to dance to. What’s unusual is for a pop musician to write an entire score and still keep their pop roots.

We have to ask — how does your show compare to ‘Black Swan?’

It looks nothing like ‘Black Swan’ … [although] I quite enjoyed it. They’re doing a traditional production of ‘Swan Lake,’ and it’s a dark story, and that’s what comes out in the film. They’re doing the classical ballet moves. Classical ballet — I’m not going to pontificate about it, but it has elements of pantomime in it. [In ours] the dancing is very classical, but at the same time, it’s got fantastic energy. It really goes with the music.

If someone comes to see this, you’re not going to see classical ballet. At the same time, this has very much the same structure as classical ballet. The middle act is a fantasy sequence, as ‘Swan Lake’ is, and we’ve used this fantasy story by Hans Christian Andersen, which has a lot of darkness to it. It’s about trying to destroy an idea and ideas being indestructible. The story was used in Denmark in the Second World War by the Danish resistance as a story about Nazism — someone building democracy and someone destroying it in an impressive way, [like] fascism. The idea of democracy or freedom triumphs. You can’t kill the idea. You can kill the manifestation, but you can’t kill the idea.

You mentioned that you’re working on the next Pet Shop Boys album. Has the experience of doing the ballet influenced your songwriting?

We tend to react against whatever we’ve just done. Having just written a 19-minute instrumental piece, you feel like writing something brighter and simpler, and that’s what’s happening at the moment.

Taken from:
Interviewer: Kenneth Partridge