The ability to turn a single person into a salamander is a strange sort of magic to possess but that’s the talent Empress Épine harbours in Prince of the Pagodas. The tale of Princess Belle Sakura who discovers that her long-lost brother is the afore-mentioned changeling is a fudge of a story that even Kenneth MacMillan couldn’t satisfactorily unravel for The Royal Ballet. David Bintley’s new production for Birmingham Royal Ballet transports the action to Japan and with a generally clear sense of storytelling he’s managed to just about make sense of the plot.
Benjamin Britten’s music is absolutely beautiful but it’s rhythmically difficult to define and not easy to pin flowing classical choreography onto. For the first two acts in particular, the dancing sometimes felt a bit over-egged, that it was ploughing on regardless of the subtlety of the score. But as the disparate elements persevered with each other so they slowly became more entwined and the final cherry-blossomed drenched scene of celebration was a wonderful blending of choreography, music, costumes and design.
As the Princess, Momoko Hirata demonstrated what an elegant and refined performer she is. Her role is an odd one in that things tend to happen around her rather than because of her; in the second act, for example, she’s supposed to overcome the different challenges of the natural elements but she basically runs around with her arm in front of her face until the elements fizzle out themselves. She’s far happier when dancing and her variation in the final pas de deux was a sinewy delight.
Furthermore, she and Joseph Caley made a gorgeous couple. Their two pas de deux were tender, joyful and beautiful to watch; their interaction with their younger selves in the second act was genuinely touching. Caley himself is a superb technician and the differentiation between his human and salamander personas was striking – he really captured the lizardy essence of a four-legged reptile.
Épine, the other major role and one that demands plenty of versatility (she’s surely unique in being an Empress one minute and an octopus the next), was danced extremely well by Elisha Willis, but the character’s hamstrung by her neglect to use her magic powers to gain further advantage, even when under attack herself.
Elsewhere, the four Kings were entertaining (providing you can swallow the national stereotyping that really shouldn’t have a place in a 21st century ballet), Tzu-Chao Chou threw in a bright and breezy turn as the ceaselessly enthusiastic Court Fool and the Seahorses were surprisingly funny as they bounced about to a bit of Britten pizzicato.
On top of everything else, Rae Smith’s Japanese-inspired designs were terrific, especially the scrims of waves that curled inwards in Act 2, and her costumes were fantastic – the fluffy cloud tutus, the Balinese Ladies’ outfits, the lovely pastel-coloured dresses and trousers of the final scene and the Salamander’s iso-barred body suit are just a few examples.
In short, Prince of the Pagodas was a bit uneven but there are many good points that ultimately make it worthwhile. Still haven’t worked out if the googly-eyed Yokai are a good thing or not though.
Prince of the Pagodas runs at London’s Coliseum until 29 March 2014 and tickets can be found on the Birmingham Royal Ballet website.