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Arts Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Prince of the Pagodas


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Conceiving, creating and crafting ballets involve hard work. Audiences are not always appreciative, nor storylines straightforward nor colleagues co-operative in the journey to producing a popular ballet. As Company Director David Bintley brings his adaptation of The Prince of the Pagodas over to the UK with Birmingham Royal Ballet, Beth Baker-Wyse asks: has Bintley been able to breathe life into an unloved ballet?

After an unsettled collaboration between British composer Benjamin Britten and choreographer John Cranko, a series of failed revivals and a re-staging by the Royal Ballet in 2012, David Bintley took charge of restoring The Prince of the Pagodas after inspiration came from the orient. Attempts have clearly been made to fashion a visually vibrant and family friendly production, with fundamental areas of the plot also adapted. Explaining that his is ‘a different kind of love story exploring a love of a girl for her brother, a father for his son and ultimately that of a family re-united after much trial and tribulation’, there is pathos to be found in what was criticized as a ballet with ‘intensity previously lacking’.

With links made to Beauty and the Beast, The Sleeping Beauty, King Lear and Cymbeline, The Prince of the Pagodas tells the tale of Princess Belle Sakura (Momoko Hirata) and life following the loss of her brother (Joseph Caley) under the rule of the Emperor (Rory Mackay) and wicked Empress Épine (Elisha Willis). Rejecting the Kings of the North, East, South and West she is set to marry, Sakura falls for a Salamander of whom she discovers to be her brother. After travelling through the elements to reach Pagoda Land and overthrowing her evil step-mother, the Princess is re-united with her brother and the Emperor as they celebrate a unified Kingdom once more.

Incorporating designs by the woman behind hit show War, Horse Rae Smith, the ballet picked out delicate elements of the East whilst showing an awareness of the constant threat Princess Sakura lived under. Hanging blossoms, silk gowns and Balinese dancers lay at odds with the boggle-eyed monsters, fiery women and creatures from another Kingdom. Details such as the four distinct chairs and weapons for each King made for a thoughtful and compelling visual tapestry, as is always with the company.

Labelled by Bintley as ‘eminently danceable’, it was Britten’s score for me that tarnished the performance slightly. Yes, there were references to Gamelan and moments of bold beauty such as the downfall of Épine, but such a strong emphasis on brass began to grate after a while, not always doing justice to the sensitive journey of discovery going on onstage. The spell was also occasionally broken by Elisha Willis’s characterisation of Épine, who appeared to be taking an all too subtle approach as the domineering Empress. Willis was more than capable of tackling the technical complexities, however rarely appeared to feel outside of the realms of what the choreography called for, often overlooking an intriguing role.   

Nevertheless, Bintley’s captivating patterning of the corps and fascination with the power of four provided us with an effective otherworld. The flurry of clouds, stars and fleeting foam stood distinct from the stillness of Act I, whilst underwater creatures and sea-horses brought humour to the performance. The swirling King of the North, glittering King of the East and noble King of the South has us all engaged, it was however James Barton’s witty King of the West that stood out. Rory Mackay was artful in his interpretation of the Emperor as a broken man, providing a poignant ‘pas de deux’ with Court Fool Tzu-Chao Chou.

Overlooking all of this action was of course the Princess and her Salamander Prince. Principles Momoko Hirata and Joseph Caley worked as an outstanding pair to pull off some impressive partner work, whilst also enchanting us on their own as the delicate Princess and acrobatic elusive Salamander. In what could be seen by many as a confusing move, Bintley’s decision to have the lead pair as siblings rather than lovers actually allowed for a refreshing take on love. Although intimate interaction took place between the dancers, it was of a raw and unwary quality that made for an all the more heart-warming ending when Sakura was re-united with her brother.

Setting out to present ‘something much more mystical and subtle’ than the romantic type of love between man and woman, Bintley has helped to regenerate and drive more drama into the ballet as was the request of earlier audiences in its creation. Whether he has gathered all the correct tools together to craft an endearing interpretation should be left to the minds of future audiences.

Following the company's run at the Birmingham Hippodrome until March 1st, The Prince of the Pagodas will visit the Theatre Royal Plymouth 19th - 22th March, before moving on to the London Coliseum, from March 26th-29th.

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