Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet - The Prince of the Pagodas - London Coliseum

Performance: 26 - 29 March 2014
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Monday 31 March 2014

Joseph Caley as the Salamander Prince with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet. Photo: Bill Cooper

Admired but never quite embraced by audiences, The Prince of The Pagodas has what can only be described as an awkward performance history. First commissioned in 1957 by Royal Ballet founder Dame Ninette de Valois, the ballet was an attempt to bring together the best and brightest of Britain’s creative talent by pairing composer Benjamin Britten and star choreographer John Cranko.

Baffled by the strange story involving a princess who leaves her kingdom for a salamander, audiences abandoned the ballet after just 34 performances. Kenneth MacMillan’s 1989 version provided a star-making turn for a young Darcey Bussell, but did little to endear audiences to the strange plot. So it’s a real curate’s egg of a piece that BRB’s Artistic Director David Bintley has chosen to tackle with his staging – a mesmerising score with plenty of opportunity for virtuoso dancing, coupled with one of the oddest stories in ballet. Which, when you think about all the girls who routinely turn into swans/sleep for a hundred years/fall in love with nutcracking devices, is really saying something.

Bintley makes some radical changes to the plot, starting with a change of location to an imperial Japanese court (the production was initially made on the National Ballet of Japan in 2011). This relocation allows for West End theatre designer Rae Smith’s oriental set and costume designs to provide a beautiful context for the action. Princess Belle Rose becomes Belle Sakura (Momoko Hirata), the princess of cherry-blossom, and Goneril-style elder sister Épine (Elisha Willis) is recast as a wicked stepmother who desires the kingdom for herself. The salamander, meanwhile becomes a long-lost brother transformed by a curse, and the central story becomes one of siblings who reunite restore their kingdom.

Perhaps most sensibly, however, Bintley recognises that the key pleasure of Pagodaland is not the unloved story, but the dazzling divertissements that are liberally sprinkled throughout the ballet. Belle Sakura’s four suitors, the Kings of the North, East, West and South, each have a sparkling variation to dance in pursuit of her hand; James Barton, as the Uncle Sam-impersonating King of the West particularly stands out with his fleet footwork and nimble beaten jumps.

As the winsome Belle Sakura ,Hirata dances with an easy grace that belies the precise challenges of the material; her onstage brother Joseph Caley writhes and squirms his was a series of athletic salamander variations. The whole company gets in on the action, fluttering en pointe as a bank of fluffy clouds, leaping and licking as a fiery body of flames, and bobbing across the stage as a set of otherworldy sea creatures that owe something to Bintley’s shorter and highly-popular work Still Life At The Penguin Café. There’s plenty for everyone to do, and everyone embraces their roles with a relish that sweeps the audience along.

Joyful though this often is, Prince of the Pagodas is still most likely to appeal to those who can accept the fundamental strangeness of the narrative – a strangeness that remains, even with Bintley’s improvements – and who love Britten’s music, because there’s an awful lot of it. The individual variations showcase BRB’s strength in depth, with some great individual and ensemble performances to animate the work. But if 100 minutes of mid-century music about courtly coups and enchanted amphibians is not your thing, it’s unlikely this production will change your mind.

BRB’s Prince of the Pagodas is at the London Coliseum until 6 April.

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