Review: Royal Ballet - The Prince of The Pagodas at the Royal Opera House

Performance: 2, 6, 9, 13, 18, 21, 27, 29 June 2012
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 6 June 2012

 Marianela Nunez & Nehemiah Kish in 'The Prince of the Pagodas'. Photo: Johan Persson, courtesy, ROH.

Performance reviewed: 2 June

This felt like a premiere, which is odd for a fifty year-old ballet score, already on its second incarnation when Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography was first seen in 1989. Benjamin Britten’s only score written specifically for ballet was first developed in association with John Cranko’s choreography in the mid-1950s and then reused by MacMillan some 30 years later. It is known that MacMillan wanted to cut the music to suit his purposes and discussed this possibility with the composer barely a week before his death. In the event, the Britten Estate was unlikely to have allowed cuts and MacMillan – having suffered a major heart attack – was too ill to pursue such changes while he completed the long choreographic process (although he was frequently heard to bemoan the number of bars that needed to be filled with dance).

There are reasons why neither version of The Prince of The Pagodas survived in the Royal Ballet’s repertory. Cranko’s production was withdrawn after 34 performances and MacMillan’s original clocked up just 30 shows at the Royal Opera House by the time it was last seen in 1996. Cranko’s intent was to produce a British ballet in a form and structure that pays homage to The Sleeping Beauty, but Britten’s score is in pale contrast to the populist, melodic sweep of Tchaikovsky and the story was convoluted by having so many of those bars to fill.

So it is that we must pay tribute to Dame Monica Mason for having the courage to revisit the Pagodas as one of the final acts of her artistic leadership at the Royal Ballet. The passage of years means that the changes to the score that were not possible so soon after the composer’s death have now been made, losing at least 20 minutes from the ballet (mostly in Act 2). MacMillan is reported to have said, not long before he died in 1992, that ‘Pagodas is a great ballet waiting to get out’ and it seems that some of the obstacles to fulfilling this aim have now been pruned.

There are few in the company who have ever previously performed in ‘Pagodas’ although Bennet Gartside’s swaggering turn as the New Romantic, brigand King of the North was well informed by having danced other roles in all of the 1996 shows. As the good Princess Rose, Marianela Nuñez was a model of refined and demure beauty and she danced with consistent excellence. If I have a quibble it might be that she was often anonymous in the crowded scenes (but then this was in character with her qualities of diffidence and modesty). Her evil, elder sister, Princess Épine, was a suitably fiery role for Tamara Rojo and despite the choreography in her opening solo being quite a stretch (especially the multiple jetés), she powered through the ballet as if she were Carabosse (the wicked fairy in The Sleeping Beauty) dancing the role of Odile (The Black Swan).

My greatest reservations are again reserved for the performance of Nehemiah Kish as The Prince. He is transformed by Épine’s spell into a Salamander and so spends much of Act 2 in this lizard-like state. I was intrigued by the fact that three people asked me separately to identify who was dancing the role of the Salamander, since it had not occurred to them that Kish was playing this dual role. He was certainly much the better in the masked, faceless role of the Salamander, where his athleticism and dance ability spoke for themselves. As the Prince, even his normally assured partnering had off moments. At the beginning of the grand pas de deux he visibly struggled to transport Nuñez across the stage and this betrayal of effort burst the bubble of balletic magic. Kish lacks impact, which is a problem that is exacerbated when sharing a stage with performers like McRae and Rojo who have stage presence in spades. The first night of a ballet entitled The Prince of the Pagodas needs the best of male Principals to lead it. Unfortunately, Kish only seemed right as The Prince when he was masked as the mysterious Salamander.

MacMillan based the characters of the kings of the four corners of the earth (potential suitors for his daughters) on exaggerated qualities of the dancers that first portrayed them and a generation later, I thought that the four inheritors of these roles did well. In addition to Gartside, Steven McRae was excellent as the foppish King of the West as was Valeri Hristov as the narcissistic King of the East. Ricardo Cervera would not have been my first choice as the warrior King of the South but he did well to assimilate a style of choreography that I felt did not suit him. The final word on performance should go to an excellent pivotal performance by Alexander Campbell as the Shamen-like Fool who leads Princess Rose into the Other Lands so that she can free her Salamander Prince and rescue her father’s court from the controlling spell of her elder sister.

Like The Sleeping Beauty – and all of MacMillan’s other full-length works – this is a large ensemble ballet which often populates the stage with a crowded throng of personnel (including a lot of young dancers as baboons) and there is always something happening in the periphery of this action that will reward occasional glances to the sides of the stage. The late Nicholas Georgiadis’s sets and costumes have been lovingly restored and create a mysterious flavour of a late Tudor/early Elizabethan age.

Stylistically, The Prince of The Pagodas is rooted around MacMillan’s early influences. As well as The Sleeping Beauty, from which there are many references, there is a strong resonance with the work of Ninette de Valois, most overtly to Checkmate with its music by another English composer (Sir Arthur Bliss) and with similar allusions to a doddery Emperor/King and his reign coming under pressure from conflict.

For the sake of all this history in the evolution of British ballet, it is vitally important to see the last of MacMillan’s full-length ballets restored to the company’s repertory and a fine – and I hope lasting – swan song for Mason’s reign as Director.

Performances continue on 6, 9, 13, 18, 21, 27, 29 June 2012

Photos: Marianela Nunez & Nehemiah Kish in ‘The Prince of the Pagodas’. Photo: Johan Persson, courtesy, ROH

Graham Watts writes for many publications including DanceTabs and Dancing Times. He is Chair of the Critics’ Circle Dance Section.

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