Friday, 31 January 2014

Lear with a Happy Ending - Birmingham Royal Ballet's Prince of the Pagodas 30 Jan 2014

Prince of the Pagodas  The Lowry, 30 Jan 2014

I have just returned from watching the first performance in the UK of David Bintley's Prince of the Pagodas. When I get back from a show at this time of night I usually make straight for bed and leave the review till at least the morning. But this performance was so good that a review won't wait until morning. I am so excited about it that I will not be able to sleep until I have written it out of my system.

The Prince of the Pagodas is not a new ballet. It was created by John Cranko in 1957, a choreographer for whom I have a particularly high regard (see "Cranko's "Taming of the Shrew": Now's our chance to see one of the Ballets everyone should see before they die" 21 Sept 2013) and has been revised by Kenneth MacMillan and Monica Mason. Bintley created the work that we saw last night for the National Ballet of Japan  in 2011.  He has now brought his work home to the Birmingham Royal Ballet. 

As you can see from the synopses of the National Ballet of Japan and the Birmingham Royal Ballet the story is based very loosely on King Lear. Bintley has made a number of modifications to the plot that distance it still further from Lear in that he substitutes a wicked stepmother for a wicked sister and the Cordelia character is called not Rose but Sakura which means Cherry Blossom. But the essentials from Lear of an ill used and ailing father and a devoted but alienated daughter are retained by Bintley.

Both the Japanese and Birmingham synopses omit important details.  Immediately before the curtain rose Tzu-Chao Chou sat in the centre of the stage.  He danced the jester or fool and was the link for each stage of the story from the welcome of the conductor to the rostrum to attending and supporting the imprisoned emperor in his confinement. A remarkable character artist  he brought humour to the ballet.  The kings of the cardinal points were dressed respectively as Uncle Sam, a Russian, a Zulu and something else which I am still trying to ascertain from the company's website, the "Creating Pagodas" blog and programme. Possibly a Pacific islander or a native American  Each bought a gift representing his culture: an elephant tusk from the African, a miniature oil well from the Russian, a cache of guns from the American and a long pipe from the fourth cardinal point.  Those characters appeared again as demons in red as Princess Sakura and her brother, the salamander, passed through fire on their escape from their wicked stepmother.

There is a lot of material in this ballet to which a review of a few paragraphs will never do justice so I shall focus on the essentials. First, Benjamin Britten's score has been the subject of more than a little criticism (see, for example, Judith Macrkrell's review of the Mason production in The Guardian of 6 June 2012).  I found it majestic, complex, delicate and varied.  I particularly enjoyed the gamelan sequences. I loved it all and would gladly listen to it again and again. I can see why Britten's music would be difficult to choreograph but I think Bintley has found the way.  The audience's attention was retained through a very complex story by some quite spectacular dancing from the entry of the four kings to a fight scene in the last act where the princess and the salamander rescue their father and send the wicked empress packing. Last but by no means least were Rae Smith's sumptuous designs - glorious backdrops of Mount Fuji, swirling elements and a salamander - and costumes with everything from sea horses to kimonos. I can't remember such a visual feast in any theatrical performance.

Bintley demanded a lot from his dancers but all were equal to the challenge: Joseph Caley and Momoko Hirata who danced the salamander and Sakura, Elisha Willis the wicked stepmother and Rory MacKay the emperor. Each of the four kings was splendid - Mathias Dingman as king of the north, Chi Cao the king of the east, James Barton king of the west and my favourite, Tyrone Singleton king of the south.

In the programme there is an article by Paul Arrowsmith entitled "Transforming and Unloved Prince". It notes that the ballet has never been popular with British audiences even though it was created and revised by a succession of great choreographers and considers why.  I think this version will be the one that sticks.  It certainly deserves to do so and I hope it will.

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