Britten shines under a rising sun

Blossom, a rising sun, Mount Fuji and the ladies of the court in stunning pink kimonos before their emperor in a pretty as this picture Prince of the Pagodas

The Prince of the Pagodas

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

WITH an unfamiliar story and unfamiliar music The Prince of the Pagodas was never going to be an easy sell but David Bintley has succeeded in some way into making Benjamin Britten’s 57 year old score into a coherent ballet.

The original, choreographed by John Cranko for The Royal Ballet, with a new, darker production by Kenneth MacMillan in 1989, Darcey Bussell’s premiere in a principal role incidentally, drew heavily on Shakespeare’s King Lear for inspiration.

Thus an emperor must decide which of his two daughters, the evil Belle Epine or the young and beautiful Belle Rose, should inherit the throne. We all know how that will turn out with Rose escaping with a bunch of frogs to the land of the Salamander before returning for good to triumph over evil. Cheers, ovation, curtain.

Bintley, BRB’s director, produced his version initially for the National Ballet of Japan in 2011 and has turned the story into a fairy tale fantasy with an evil stepmother empress turning her stepson into a salamander and trying to force her daughter into a marriage with one of the kings of a very much stylised north, south, east or west.

She escapes with a strange fifth suitor, a scaley salamander, really her brother, to dance with sea creatures and we see a simple mime of how she played with her brother before he was turned into a salamander by her evil stepmother.

Brother and sister, Princess Belle Sakura and the Salamander Prince

This clever ploy gets around a section of music that, with the best will and best dancers in the world, would be a nightmare to dance to in any form, let alone classical ballet.

Indeed that is a problem with the music that it is not lyrical, not symphonic, not really flowing. No one would be on their way home humming snatches of The Prince to themselves. The chances of any part of the score appearing in TV ads or on any Classical hits CD, until you get to Vol 60 or so, are so slim as to be discounted yet they are the modern sources of popular familiarity.

And although Cranko commissioned the work from Britten one suspects that it was written without an intimate knowledge of the intricacies of dance so Bintley is to be commended on making some sort of sense of a difficult to work with score.

Aided by some spectacular sets from Rae Smith, perhaps best known for War Horse, he has fused modern and classical ballet into a simple tale – a tale which is helped along enormously if you read the synopsis first. Without it you may well feel some banned substance or other was slipped into you pre-show drink.

Japan’s Momoko Hirata is superb as Princess Belle Sakura, the name means cherry blossom, the Cinderella character threatened by her evil stepmother (what would fairly tales do without them!) who believes her brother is dead while Joseph Caley revels in the Salamander Prince, slinking about the stage on all fours, as any good lizard should, in a black and white striped body stocking; he really does give an elegant, reptilian feel to his role.

Caley' salamander is the Prince of Pagoda land,  a land where we come across seahorses, deep sea creatures which looked like sea urchins – making it somewhat brave of our heroine princess to straddle their shoulders - sea horses, flames and, perhaps a homage to the musical influences Britten encompassed in the score, four Balinese ladies.

You meet the strangest people in Pagoda Land, ask Princess Belle Sakura

There were also four Yokai, supernatural monsters from Japanese folklore, remember that was originally written for Japanese audiences, who looked a little like something Hammer Films would have come up with had they been asked to design the Teletubbies. Strange creatures but fun in their own way.

We hade the wooing of the kings, Mathias Dingman as North, Chi Cao as East, James Barton as West and Tyrone Singleton as South, with their gifts and pleas at the opening and their fight to the death(ish) with the now back in human form Prince and Princess at the end which also saw the final defeat of the deliciously evil Elisha Willis, who danced beautifully in a purple dress which flowed so wonderfully it was worth a curtain call all of its own.

Rory Mackay gave us a doddery old emperor who by the final act was ready to meet his maker until seeing his two children again breathed new life into his ancient old bones and he helped in the battle and even managed a little jig.

The Lear influence was still there though with the fool, played by Taiwan born Tzu-Chao Chou, who sits on the edge of the stage to introduce the orchestra and interact with the audience before becoming part of the court, neither bad nor good, but introducing the events as they unfold.

Another stunning scene in Rae Smith's design, beautifully lit by Peter Teien,as the Flames engulf the Princess

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Koen Kessels were, as always, superb with special mention of some fine violin solos, particularly in a beautiful solo dance by the Princess, presumably played by the leader Robert Gibbs.

If you have never seen a ballet before and would like to, then this is probably not the place to start, it is more one for the purists. Beautifully danced, often with music that it is difficult to dance to, with fabulous designs, but only history will tell if it will have any more success in entering into the popular ballet repertoire than its two predecessors. To 01-03-14.

Roger Clarke

Meanwhile at low tide . . .

****

THERE must be times when parents seeking a suitable arranged marriage for their daughters reach a state of despair, and this ballet is one of them.

Except that here it is wicked step mother, Empress Epine, who plans to marry off Princess Belle Sakura to the highest bidder, with four wealthy kings lined up to win the beautiful young girl, impressively played by Momoko Hirata

But she is strangely attracted to a weird Salamander figure (Joseph Caley) who turns out to be her much-loved long lost brother, cursed to live out his life as the scaly character and become Prince of Pagoda land.

The ballet, performed to Benjamin Britten’s music, has not always had a particularly enthusiastic reception, but this new interpretation by choreographer David Bintley has many powerfully exciting periods, despite an occasional dip in pace here and there.

A beautiful set designed by Rae Smith, of War Horse fame, has a mountain backdrop, pretty Japanese flowers circling the stage and a huge sun, while the costumes are a delight, particularly in the final scenes involving ballerinas in stunning kimonos twirling pretty parasols.

When the Salamander first appears, he is accompanied by an entourage of extraordinary creatures who might have put the wind up Dr Who, and later the audience are treated to a clever dance by four seahorses.

Fine performances from Elisha Willis (Empress Epine), Rory Mackay (The Emperor) and the four kings, Chi Cao, James Barton, Mahias Dingman and Tyrone Singleton, plus some wonderful comedy spots featuring Tzu-Chao Chou as the Court Fool.

Music is by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Koen Kessels.

To 01.03.14

Paul Marston

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