The World’s Greatest Show, Greenwich Dance, London

The 20-minute interval in the middle of Arthur Pita’s The World’s Greatest Show was a chance for the encircling audience at Greenwich’s Borough Hall to grab a drink or powder its nose but the couples under the flyblown bunting smooched on regardless. Welcome to the Knoxville dance marathon 1935: stop moving and you’re out.

America’s prewar endurance dance phenomenon was immortalised by Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? McCoy, who had worked as a bouncer at a Santa Monica dance hall, had unsuccessfully pitched the material as a screenplay before reworking it as a novel in 1935. The grim tale of a Hollywood wannabe murdered at her own insistence was mildly successful – America’s first existentialist novel, according to Simone de Beauvoir – but is chiefly remembered for Sydney Pollack’s 1969 film starring Jane Fonda as the monstrous Gloria.

As dancemaker for more than a dozen operas and musicals, Pita is well used to working round existing narratives (his dance version of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, created for the Royal Ballet’s Edward Watson, was his biggest hit to date) but he rejected McCoy’s bleak take on the dance marathon, chiefly because he wanted to explore a more positive angle: “I was inspired by Gloria’s story but what I saw were survivors: it’s about the human spirit.”

Pita and his collaborators spent four days camped out in the Greenwich hall last summer dancing 20 hours a day. “The idea was to discover, not to suffer,” laughs Pita, but his performers were making up steps, not conserving energy the way the real contestants did: “After the first 12 hours we were flat out.” The core company of 12 professionals would later be joined by two dozen local amateurs. Today’s dance companies are all but obliged to include “community” contributions (hello funding) but the dance marathon set-up is a perfect use of their input. Participants don’t need to be particularly accomplished (though many were last Friday) and they get voted off almost immediately. Marathon-makers in the 1930s were equally keen to cut to a small cast that could be manipulated into a running soap opera of fights, weddings and sob stories: plenty of variety.

Pita’s constant shifts of mood and pace, sweetly reinforced by Frank Moon’s swingtime score, are proof of his choreographic versatility. The first act of the two-and-a-half-hour mini-marathon celebrates the novelty steps of the 1920s and 30s, but the second uses his weary hoofers very differently. Prewar news photographs show dead-eyed couples propped against each other, rubber-legged with exhaustion, and Pita builds on this motif to create duets that offer a zombified pastiche of contemporary pairwork. The tango sequence (coached by Amir Giles and Benny Maslov) is both funny and touching, ochos swivelling dangerously off-centre, sentadas a chance for an all-too-brief sit down.

The dreamy, dervishing solo for Amir Giles is the evening’s choreographic highlight and Bettina Carpi’s tireless circuit of the arena gives the finale the uplift Pita is seeking. Ewan Wardrop’s easy patter and Jolson-esque vocal style make for a perfect emcee, and Emma Kate Nelson’s showgirl radiates needy, peroxide charm but other personalities felt undercooked on opening night. Little as one might love McCoy’s nihilistic anti-heroine – “Let’s go sit and hate a bunch of people” – her ugly fate supplies all-important focus.

The World’s Greatest Show tours to Ipswich and to Covent Garden’s Floral Hall later this month but meanwhile Pita flies to California to work with Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev on their forthcoming Solo for Two at the London Coliseum. Osipova looks utterly at home in the Royal Ballet’s newest material but an unclassical accent can take a little longer: “If you’re teaching them something balletic they’ll have it in five minutes but contemporary movement comes harder,” worries Pita, although he cheers up when he remembers that their Coliseum programme is entirely 21st century: “When I get to Orange County they’ll already have worked with Ohad Naharin. They’ll be barefoot and ready.”

His new duet, Facada, draws on Osipova’s performances as the jilted peasant girl in Giselle. “I wanted the flipside of the character. What happens if she doesn’t forgive Albrecht?” His subject borrows from ballet but his stars itch to expand their range beyond their signature leaps and turns. Most contemporary dancemakers relish re-formatting the classical brain but Pita is more pragmatic: “I will be working with what they’ve got; it would be very disappointing if you went to see them and then didn’t see those things.” Osipova has no such scruples. Asked for a nice big jump to express her character’s furious energy, the ballerina puts her (bare) foot down: “No jetés! Ballet, ballet, ballet!”

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