Spirit and Commitment in Prince of the Pagodas

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, The Prince of the Pagodas: Dancers of the Birmingham Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet Sinfonia /  Koen Kessels (conductor),  David Bintley (choreographer), London Coliseum, London, 26.3.2014. (JPr)

bc pagodas momoko hirata joseph caley-c BILL COOPER
BC Pagodas Momoko Hirata Joseph Caley-c BILL COOPER

Cast :
Princess Belle Sakura:  Momoko Hirata
The Salamander Prince:  Joseph Caley
Empress Épine:  Elisha Willis
The Emperor:  Rory Mackay
King of the North:  Mathias Dingman
King of the East:  Chi Cao
King of the West:  James Barton
King of the South:  Tyrone Singleton
Court Fool:  Tzu-Chao Chou
Court Official:  Jonathan Payn

It is twenty-five years since I saw Kenneth MacMillan’s 1989 The Prince of the Pagodas and the intervening period has dulled any memory of my experience that evening so a direct comparison with David Bintley’s version (being staged by Birmingham Royal Ballet after being first performed in 2011 by his other company, the National Ballet of Japan) is not possible. John Cranko first choreographed it for Covent Garden in 1957 working closely – if not entirely amicably it seems – with the composer, Benjamin Britten, on his only ballet score. Paul Arrowsmith’s illuminating programme note revealed how ‘Dismissing dancers as bits of thistledown, an exhausted Britten compared completing the ballet to a release from prison.’ The original story referenced King Lear, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and much else: an Emperor announces his eldest daughter, the evil Épine, will inherit his throne; His youngest child, Rose, is transported by magic to Pagoda Land where she encounters the enchanted Salamander, who is revealed to be a Prince.; together with Rose he returns to the Emperor’s kingdom and they confront Épine, eventually driving her away.

 Bintley was first given the chance to choreograph The Prince of the Pagodas by Ninette de Valois in 1979, his reaction was ‘The music was attractive, the story idiotic’ but at that stage he had not done anything full length and passed on it. Returning to it over 30 years after the score was first suggested to him, Bintley was determined to use all the music – which many other great choreographers had tinkered with since Cranko – and as Arrowsmith writes ‘make dramatic sense of it. He pondered the character’s motivation, “Who is the prince? Why is he banished? What does Épine hope to gain? Why is Rose in love with a salamander?” ’

 Bintley’s new version changes much of the original scenario: Rose now becomes Sakura and the Princess’s nemesis, Épine, is a traditional wicked stepmother and not her sister. The Salamander whom she follows to his Pagoda Land Kingdom, is not her future lover, but her long-lost brother who was presumed dead in a jungle and we see being buried in the Prologue. Arrowsmith reminds us that MacMillan’s Pagodas involved a ‘sexual rite of passage where Rose is assaulted by four kings’. Bintley has the Empress Épine become the power behind the throne because the Emperor has never recovered from the loss of his son. She covets the wealth and power that a suitable marriage for Sakura to the highest bidder will bring her and ‘courts’ four foreign Kings; of the North (a Cossack with an oil field), the East (offering opium it seemed to me!), the West (looking like ‘Uncle Sam’ with some weapons) and the South (an African tribal chief with his hoard of ivory).

 After undergoing Magic Flute-like trials by Earth, Air, Fire and Water, Sakura finally arrives in Pagoda Land and discovers her brother’s true fate and that as a child, he was cursed and banished by Épine. (Hints of Lohengrin here.) The siblings are reunited and return home to reveal the truth about the Empress’s treachery. After helping to fight off Épine’s allies – those four foreign Kings – the Emperor, now restored to health, is horrified by what she has been getting up to and has her banished before being joyfully re-united with his children.

 It all makes a certain amount of dramatic sense without totally convincing me that there is something here that could be revived once the celebration of the recent centenary of Britten’s birth is just a distant memory. Certainly the score – or some of it at least – is well worth an outing in the concert hall I am not sure it works for a ballet – particularly a narrative one such as this. It seems Britten was not writing with dancers in mind and it shows when such reverence is paid to performing Pagodas complete, as Bintley does here: it often sounds strident, with frequent angular melodic shapes but only fleeting lyricism. The colouring is Balinese and owes much to gamelan music but, for me, is rarely exotic enough and, more importantly, is hardly ever redolent of Japan that Bintley needs it to be for his slant on Pagodas. BRB’s music director Koen Kessels and the always reliable Royal Ballet Sinfonia did well with the demands of Britten’s quixotic score whilst accompanying the dancers with assiduous care.

 Bintley gives us a spasmodically entertaining evening that is much too long; however, it is danced by the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s ensemble of artists, soloists and principals with great spirit and commitment. I was able to study them in close-up here and they often appear much more natural performers than their Covent Garden counterparts (whom I saw recently dance The Sleeping Beauty in the live cinema transmission) and seemed more concerned with technique on that occasion than actual story-telling. The Prince of the Pagodas looks good too without me being able to banish from my mind how much a modern use of video might have created better stage pictures for some of the more fantastically elements of the story. Nevertheless, Rae Smith (best known for the National Theatre’s War Horse) imaginatively uses imagery from the natural world as depicted by the nineteenth-century artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi, whose work inspired Bintley’s to set Pagodas in Japan. There are backdrops showing Mount Fuji, lavish colourful costumes with much use, of course, of silk, and some big, galumphing, boggle-eyed, spear-wielding monsters, as well as, many other strange creature creations. I particularly liked the four ‘prancing’ seahorses and the two extremely camp sea urchins that accompanied an appearance by Épine – as an octopus! – during Sakura’s Water trial.

 At times it was difficult to decide whether what we were seeing was all a nightmare the Princess was having or something ‘really’ happening to her. In fact right from the start of the evening – before we hear a note of music – the Court Fool (Tzu-Chao Chou) sits on the front of the stage and teases the orchestra during their warm-up, makes fun of the mobile phone announcement with a banana, greets the conductor and leads the applause, all before welcoming us into the Court of the Chrysanthemum Throne.

 In fact Tzu-Chao Chou’s hyperactive Fool was one of Bintley’s best ideas, he was full of cheeky fun and also later shown to be very compassionate about the plight of his Emperor. His other success for me was the slithering, slinky, seductive interpretation of the Salamander, though he arrives much too late in Act I and whips Sakura away all too quickly. Generally the tone of the ballet often veered uneasily between a serious love story (a sister for her brother) with its genuine fantasy setting for Sakura’s quest and inconsequential pantomime. This started with those reimagined foreign Kings – the uniformly excellent Mathias Dingman (North), Tyrone Singleton (South), Chi Cao (East) and James Barton (West) – and culminated in those seahorses, as well as, Brandon Lawrence and Tom Rogers as the Deep-Sea Creatures or Urchins. Nevertheless each Act has its compelling pivotal moment – an Act I pas de deux when Sakura’s poignantly remembers happier times with her brother; the use of three child dancers (Natalie Rooney, Cameron-James Bailey and Jake Tang) movingly re-enacting the Salamander’s story in Act II; and a traditional grand pas de deux in Act III that is interrupted by the samurai-inspired climactic fight between the triumvirate for ‘good’ (Emperor, Prince and Princess) against the forces of ‘evil’ (the four Kings).

 Until his miraculous rejuvenation in Act III the Emperor is a doddery old fool and Rory Mackay was convincingly aged, ailing. I don’t think Bintley ever fully establishes Épine’s true evil intent but Elisha Willis does her compelling best with what little she has to work with. It is the central pairing of Joseph Caley and Momoko Hirata that ultimately made the evening worthwhile. He excelled as the Salamander and I was transfixed whenever he appeared in that guise, but also back in human form he was a true Prince and showed a warm affection for his sister, partnering her sensitively and dancing with great élan. Hirata was quite exceptional, every movement of her head, arms and legs had an innate grace and purpose and she is one of those rare ballerinas who removes all thoughts of gymnastics from ballet because of how effortless she makes it all seem. That she is alert to the drama was evident from the heightened melancholy of her dancing in Act I, then bewilderment gave way to a sense of purpose in Act II, before she revealed her character’s new strength and maturity in Act III. Momoko Hirata is a dancer I look forward to seeing again before too long.

Jim Pritchard

For more about all the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s forthcoming performances go to www.brb.org.uk.  For a review of the premiere at Birmingham Hippodrome see: https://seenandheard-international.com/2014/03/winning-production-britten-ballet/

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