Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Hans Christian Andersen and the Pet Shop Boys: The Most Incredible Thing

Amid a slew of new ballets on London stages, The Most Incredible Thing opens at Sadler's Wells tomorrow, with a score by Pet Shop Boys and choreography by Javier De Frutos. It is based on a four-page story written by Hans Christian Andersen late in his life about a ruler's promise to give his daughter's hand and half his kingdom to 'whoever could present the most incredible thing'.

The story is emblematic of Andersen's brevity and wit; here he describes the efforts of subjects hoping to fulfil their king's challenge: 'Two of them ate themselves to death and one died of drink while trying to do the most incredible thing, each according to his inclination... Little street urchins practised spitting on their own backs; that's what they thought was the most incredible thing of all.'

A 'tenderhearted' young man creates a remarkable performing clock which the judges agree is 'the most incredible thing' until a 'tall, strong, bony fellow' comes forward and smashes it to pieces. '"Destroying a work of art like that," said the judges. "Yes, that is the most incredible thing!"'

Andersen doesn't finish there, though I will allow you to discover the end for yourself. In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Andersen's Fairy Tales (2004), editor Jackie Wullschlager notes: 'In his anxiety over the future of civilised values in a changing world, Anderson is one of us. To current readers, echoes of war and the terrorist attacks across Europe, the United States, Asia and the Middle East with which the twenty-first century opened, sound throughout the tale.

'The battle between culture and aggression, though, is timeless. The story was inspired by the Franco-Prussian conflicts of the 1860s and 1870s, but between 1940 and 1945, during the Second World War, it was widely circulated, with anti-Nazi illustrations, among the Danish Resistance to German Occupation.'

No wonder the tale appealed to Pet Shop Boys. The great Dane has had his stories adapted as ballets before, notably for the eponymous production in Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948), but this seems to have struck a chord for Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.

In an interview with the BBC, choreographer De Frutos says he heard 'Russian Constructivists, 1920s marches, militaristic stuff' in the score. Tennant is famously fascinated by Balkan politics and Russian history, a theme that pops up in Pet Shop Boys' first hit West End Girls (1984), with its reference to 'the Finland Station' (where Lenin arrived from Germany in 1917), through the choirs on the Bilingual album (1996) to their 2005 soundtrack for Battleship Potemkin (from 1925).

Then there is Andersen as a conflicted figure, apparently bisexual though some claim he remained a virgin his entire life (despite being a regular frequenter of prostitutes, in which case - as Michael Booth wonders in his 2005 travel biography of Andersen, Just as Well I'm Leaving - what was he doing with them?).

Andersen was self-obsessed and ambitious and must have cut a striking figure: tall and gangly, with giant hands and feet, he was also cursed with a protuberant proboscis and razor-like teeth, which prompted one friend to dub him the 'crane'. Despite being a highly strung hypochondriac prone to 'passport panic', he was remarkably well travelled, though he sounds like a tiresome companion.

In 1857, he stayed with Charles Dickens at the latter's home in Gad's Hill, Kent. Following Andersen's departure, Dickens posted the following note on his bedroom door: 'Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks - which seemed to the family AGES.'

Andersen was also terrified he might die in a fire so carried a nine-metre rope in his trunk on his travels to escape from any building. I was in Copenhagen in 2005 (to track down the main songwriter of Danish band Gangway), the 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth, and was happy to see his travelling case displayed in the airport.

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