Momoko Hirata as Princess Belle Sakura © Bill Cooper
Momoko Hirata as Princess Belle Sakura
© Bill Cooper

Birmingham Royal Ballet brings The Prince of the Pagodas to the Birmingham Hippodrome. Among those who have had an opportunity to leave their fingerprint on the work are John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan. This time David Bintley attempted to engrave his signature on the ballet. The show was produced in collaboration with New National Theatre, Tokyo and had its début here in the United Kingdom in late January of this year. The musical score was created by Benjamin Britten and has a reputation for being tricky to use. Nevertheless, Bintley's remaking delivers a comprehensible product that is not only appealing to the eye but also musically stimulating. Choreographed by Bintley and first performed in 2011 by the National Ballet of Japan, The Prince of the Pagodas is proof that classical ballet companies are investing in finding and reconstructing full-evening length ballets with themes that modern audiences can relate to or identify with. 

Tyrone Singleton as King of the South © Roy Smiljanic
Tyrone Singleton as King of the South
© Roy Smiljanic

The fusion between Japanese and British culture is alluring. The Prince of the Pagodas has numerous characters that are equally as enticing as its fusion cultural theme. A thread uniting the various personalities onstage is that of an unloved prince who is kicked out of his home by the evil step-mother and turned into a salamander. His sister eventually understands the truth and tries to rescue her father, the aging Monarch, from the evil woman who has caused the turmoil. Momoko Hirata is superb in her role as the Princess Belle Sakura. As the Salamander Prince, Joseph Caley has the ability to create a palpable unease when he slithers onto stage, yet you rejoice in the final pas de deux. The ballet takes you on a journey and the characters are clearly defined and well danced. Act One is coherent and sets the tone for the rest of the show. The four kings – of the North, South, East and West – are fetching as they attempt to charm the Princess in an effort to seduce her into marriage. Act Two has an abundance of characters that are haunting yet magnetic. There is a joy in watching the princess' exploration of the Salamander's kingdom as she encounters the Yokai, Seahorses, Deep-sea creatures and the Flames.

Prince of the Pagodas © Birmingham Royal Ballet
Prince of the Pagodas
© Birmingham Royal Ballet

The ballet was danced well technically, sensibly staged and constructed with ample choreography. However, there were moments where I felt that some of the dancers relied on the costuming to convey an emotion. As the Empress Épine, Elisha Willis also played three different queens, yet played each one with the same interpretation or no affect. A Flame queen should be able to pierce your soul with a simple look or hand gesture and, sadly, she fell flat and relied on the costuming or lighting to deliver the message. Another challenge was the length of the show. At almost three hours in length, it gives the feeling of a trilogy with multiple endings.

On a high note though, the sheer beauty of the sets and draping of the wardrobe brought the cherry blossoms to life and had a fragrant effect on the dancing. Birmingham Royal Ballet has the ability to always present what feels like a complete production. The combination of elements – the dancers, the sets, the costuming and the music – left a lasting impression, feeling well thought-out and prepared. The attention to detail and the technical team's efforts to make seamless transitions were – most of the time – spot on.

The Prince of the Pagodas reminded me a bit of a confectionery stand where there is an assortment to choose from: you can pick-and-mix sweets together, and most likely walk away feeling satisfied. The Court Fool, Tzu-Chao Chou, was vivacious and enthusiastic throughout the entire ballet. He opened and closed the show seated at the edge of the stage above the pit. An unusual opening and closing, but fitting since, all in all, it was a guided pilgrimage to Mount Fiji.