Before the Knight Theater curtain rises on “The Most Incredible Thing,” we face a backdrop of drab simplicity: Three dark, quasi-rectangular panels, roughly forming an arch and edged in a lighter hue. It’s the last simple thing we’ll see.
Though Charlotte Ballet’s production cancelled its first two performances because of mechanical difficulties, this whirligig of a show now works like … well, clockwork. The adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s brief fairy tale delivers an hour of extraordinary variety, visual panache and theatrical coups. If the shorter second act seems bland, that’s because the first-act finale – the creation of a timepiece whose hours are linked to Nature and myths – leaves the brain reeling.
London-based choreographer Javier de Frutos pays witty tribute to inspiring predecessors while coming up with amusing pas de deux for the two leads, first rhapsodic and then giddy. The Pet Shop Boys’ electronic/symphonic score sets the heart racing but slows down for romance or pathos. The performers must not only dance but act: I have never seen Josh Hall, who plays clock-builder Leo, inhabit a character so completely, from bliss to impotent rage.
A king (James Kopecky, who doesn’t get much to do) offers his daughter’s hand and half his kingdom to the person who designs the most incredible thing. Leo’s clock impresses the judges in a parody of “Britain’s Got Talent,” but vicious Karl (steadily malevolent Anson Zwingelberg) destroys it – which, in turn, forces the judges to admit the destruction of art and beauty is even more incredible than its creation. In Andersen’s story, the clock pieces regroup to kill the villain; here, more tamely, scissors-wielding Fates cut the thread of Karl’s life, and Leo gets the Princess (Chelsea Dumas, the picture of innocence ruined and then redeemed).
Katrina Lindsay’s wildly inventive set drops us first into a factory that could come from a German expressionist film: Workers move through dull tasks (a la “Metropolis”), while black-clad Karl (made up to look like the murderous sleepwalker from “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”) stands in an unsettlingly crooked doorway.
The Soviet-style poster in his office, where Karl relaxes by punching henchmen in the gut, tells us not to get attached to one time period or locale. That’s a good idea, because de Frutos swings through a century of dance. Three Muses, hitting poses from George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” inspire Leo to build the clock. When that marvel strikes the hour of seven, the Seven Deadly Sins appear – leaning over a dance barre like the hookers in “Sweet Charity,” corralled by a Bob Fosse figure with derby, cigarette and white gloves.
Charlotte Ballet artistic director Hope Muir has praised de Frutos by saying he can take a few moves and turn them into a full piece by varying them at length. That’s true of his “Elsa Canasta,” which the company did in its Fall Works concert, and true in “Incredible Thing” when he’s not spoofing or paying homage. He doesn’t let ideas linger overlong, except for a repetitive factory sequence in Act 2. (It’s inserted, perhaps, to prevent the act from appearing dwarfish next to its giant predecessor.)
Tal Rosner’s films and animation contribute to the tsunami of images, and a series of shadow plays (shot with the help of Pilobolus) really do make the talent contest incredible; at one point, the profile of a purse-lipped woman breaks down into six dancers. Rosner’s images reach their apex when projected above dancers embodying the clock hours: A pregnant woman illustrates “nine,” while an ultrasound of a baby hovers over her.
I couldn’t figure out what every hour meant: How did three people dressed in masks and dark bodysuits represent “eight”? But then came Moses to deliver the Ten Commandments to disciples who fell backward and, seen from an overhead camera, formed Busby Berkeley-style floral patterns with their bodies. Whatever that’s about, Charlotte needs more of it.