Review: Prince of the Pagodas

Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham Hippodrome

The Prince of the Pagodas.  

David Bintley’s The Prince of the Pagodas is certainly easy on the eye. Dancers in billowing silk kimonos adorn a palace court with a serene Mt Fuji-esqe backdrop, exuding the beauty and colour of an Imperial Japan that is beginning to open its doors to the world in this new Birmingham Royal Ballet production.

Invited by wicked Empress Épine (danced by Elisha Willis), kings from the four corners of the globe including a swaggering Uncle Sam (James Barton), a fearsome Zulu warrior (Tyrone Singleton), imperious Russian nobleman (Mathias Dingman) and powerful Polynesian (Chi Cao) arrive to woo the emperor’s daughter.

But Belle, danced enchantingly by the Japanese born Momoko Hirata, reveals the baffling nature of the plot by spurning the charming suitors in favour of a salamander prince. Little does she know at the time that this ugly creature, danced sinuously and sensuously well by Joseph Caley, is the long-lost brother that her stepmother has turned him into in attempting to usurp her doddery husband.

There follows a fantastic journey through the elements with Belle meeting sea horses to Balinese ladies in a series of divertissements on her way to Pagoda Land, where she discovers the salamander’s identity. In an over-long third Act we see her return to settle scores with her stepmother and her father regain his strength.

While it draws on a range of fairy tales that have graced the stage, from Beauty and the Beast to Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, Pagodas is convoluted even by ballet standards.

Making its UK premiere tour, David Bintley debuted the production with the National Ballet of Japan in 2011. It has been a ‘problem’ ballet ever since John Cranko first choreographed the long and complex Benjamin Britten score in 1957. It even defeated Kenneth Macmillan in 1989.

David Bintley’s answer has been to move the setting to Japan and away from what he called “an Eros type” love story between a man and a woman to portray “something more mystical and subtle”.

The result is a ballet about reconciliation rather than romance, the staple of popular ballet. So there is no tender love duet to pull on the heart strings and neither, for that matter, much of a sinister streak to keep the audience gripped. Even the boggle-eyed monsters are figures of fun.

While the dancing is faultless and Rae Smith’s designs inspired by the 19th Century artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi are wonderful, the edgy score by Benjamin Britten – played excellently by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia – does tend to grate on the ears in places where you long for sonorous melody.

Full marks to David Bintley for taking on such a challenge but it’s doubtful whether Pagodas has sufficient pull to make it a regular part of the BRB repertoire.

The show is in production today, March 1st, at 2.30pm and 7.30pm.