London Coliseum, London, UK; March 26, 2014

Charlotte Kasner

Momoko Hirata as Princess Belle Sakura and Joseph Caley as The Prince in David Bintley's 'Prince of the Pagodas'. Photo © Roy Smiljanic

Momoko Hirata as Princess Belle Sakura and Joseph Caley as The Prince in David Bintley’s ‘Prince of the Pagodas’.
Photo © Roy Smiljanic

“Prince of the Pagodas” is not a lucky ballet. Maybe it is the combination of the odd storyline and quirky score, but no-one has really managed to make it work. High hopes and a fair bit of pressure on David Bintley’s production then, seen now for the first time in London.

As with his “Aladdin” last season, the set and costumes (this time by Rae Smith) are sumptuous; so much so that they often overwhelm the dancers. There are lovely cut-outs that frame the proscenium arch and stretch in diminishing dimensions upstage and that must be the devil to tour, so delicate do they look. Birds and butterflies flit among the leaves and, at one point, the top of the cut-out is lit to suggest coral. Mount Fuji peeks out (should that be ‘peaks out’!) in the background, overshadowed by a huge moon, lit blood red for the finale. Glorious giant, pink cherry blossoms frame the dancers in candy pastel pinks and greens. The seahorses are delightful.

The scenario has some very mixed metaphors however. The ballet is set in Japan, has a Balinese-inspired score, a rather Chinese salamander, monsters that seem to have escaped from “Where The Wild Things Are” and, oh yes, not a pagoda in sight.

Benjamin Britten’s score is not an easy one to love or to choreograph to. Now nearly sixty years old, it sounds dated and ersatz, used as we have now become to hearing music from original sources all over the world that are accessible in an instant by download. At one point in the 1980s, one could not move for gamelan music. It even made it into mainstream schools, presumably because banging an instrument is technically fairly simple. Dissonance is not a problem in this genre! It comes and goes in Britten’s music but of course mostly mimicked by more conventional orchestral instruments. His ability to write soaring melodies is largely suppressed which does not assist in creating choreographic or musical interest. The orchestra poured their all into it but it is not one that would last in the head between the theatre and the tube.

Bintley seems to be afraid not to fill every beat and the work often feels frantic. There is no time for the characters and the relationships to settle. Changing the storyline to make the two main protagonists brother and sister creates a problem for the pas de deux. It would not be right for them to be too intimate but this then meant that Momoko Hirata as Princess Belle Sakura and Joseph Caley as the Salamander Prince tended to dance at each other rather than with each other. The partnership looked rather shaky on opening night with a couple of less than perfect lifts and some wobbling in the adages. Neither created characters big enough to come over the footlights and Hirata was saddled with an overly long solo, which went nowhere and did nothing. Caley was a much better salamander than a fraternal prince. He slid, slipped and glided over the stage and it was quite easy to see why he would seem a better bet than an evil sister and an unfriendly court. It was quite sad to see him transformed into a mere human.

Rory Mackay as The Emperor and Tzu-Chao Chou as the Court Fool.  Photo © Phil Hitchman - Copy

Rory Mackay as The Emperor and Tzu-Chao Chou as the Court Fool.
Photo © Phil Hitchman

Joseph Caley as The Salamander Prince. Photo © Bill Cooper

Joseph Caley as The Salamander Prince with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Photo © Bill Cooper

Momoko Hirata as Princess Belle Sakura and Elisha Willis as Empress Épine with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet.  Photo © Phil Hitchman

Momoko Hirata as Princess Belle Sakura and Elisha Willis as Empress Épine.
Photo © Phil Hitchman

The creation of accessible characters was left to Rory Mackay as a splendid Lear-like Emperor who proved that less is more, and Elisha Willis as the evil Empress Epine. Both invested a great deal of passion and energy into their roles, as did Tzu-Chao Chou as the Fool. The four suitors looked mismatched with their setting rather than like exotic imports from the cardinal points, especially Uncle Sam, although I quite liked the African character with the ostrich feathers and assegai. But by the time that the Prince did (interminable) battle with them at the end I was beyond caring. All four failed to sustain their characters while not dancing and were a bit lacklustre at times.

“Pagodas” is a work that would benefit from more clarity in characterisation and storyline and the application of a heavy blue pencil. Not much would be lost were it to be trimmed into two acts as Act III achieved little. The fact that it provided the most energetic dancing could be attributed to the fact that at last we were in the final stretch with the finishing line in sight. It may be thought sacrilegious to cut Britten’s score but there is far too much that achieves nothing in terms of plot or choreographic interest. Perhaps, this will turn out to be like Bintley’s “Cyrano”, where a few judicious revisions will produce a silk purse out of something of a sow’s ear.