The Prince of the Pagodas

Music by Benjamin Britten, choreography by David Bintley
Birmingham Royal Ballet
The Lowry, Salford

The Salamander Prince from The Prince of the Pagodas

Benjamin Britten never really reached the ‘difficult second ballet’ phase in his career, perhaps because his first and only attempt left behind enough problems of its own.

As a postscript to last year’s 100th anniversary celebrations of the composer’s birth, Birmingham Royal Ballet stages this lavish revival of The Prince of the Pagodas as a newly-imagined and reinvigorated tribute.

Choreographer David Bintley and War Horse stage designer Rae Smith have clearly thrown a lot of effort at their version—and some of it sticks—with several memorable moments when music and movement reach a suitable apotheosis.

But the central problem of a dotty story (even by classical ballet standards) with an over-abundance of composition and dance styles makes for a production that is more mystifying when it should be mystical.

A wicked sister has been dropped from the story altogether, but an evil stepmother remains and, naturally, a beautiful daughter—danced to delicate perfection on this night by Jenna Roberts. The object of her affections though is a salamander prince, an amphibious creature that is actually her brother...

After which it gets really confusing, what with kings from all points of the compass, seahorses and other deep-sea creatures, dancing flames and Balinese ladies, not forgetting the yokai, or Japanese monsters, that are possibly the most ungainly characters ever seen on a ballet stage.

The second act cannot help but become an over-long, hallucinatory experience set amidst earth, air, fire and water, while no-one seems yet quite sure when the third act should end...

Amidst general bewilderment though there is something especially beguiling about William Bracewell’s sinuous salamander character, and you won’t quickly wipe the sinful smile from Samara Downs’s face, blessed as she is with a set of exotic setpiece dances for the evil Epine.

Her tango-infused opening to the final act, seducing each of those encompassed kings, is magnetically magnificent.

Reviewer: David Upton