The Prince of the Pagodas was first choreographed by John Cranko in 1957 for The Royal Ballet to Benjamin Britten’s score. But this ballet was considered a 50-year failure and disappeared from the company’s repertoire. Later, in 1989, Kenneth MacMillan created his version and this is still performed at The Royal Ballet. However, the theme and music were difficult to tackle, even for a choreographic master like MacMillan.

The Prince of the Pagodas © Takashi Shikama
The Prince of the Pagodas
© Takashi Shikama

David Bintley created his version from personal experience. As the director of the National Ballet of Japan, he was in Tokyo when the devastating earthquake in March 2011 hit north-east Japan killing many people and leaving scars in survivors' minds. He was impressed by how the Japanese people helped each other to recover from the disaster. Bintley did not think the score of this ballet had a romantic theme, so he shifted the theme from a love story to a familial one. Princess Sakura and her brother, the Salamander Prince, resurrect a damaged nation and save their father, the Emperor, from the evil spell of their stepmother Epine. This production has also been performed by Bintley’s other company, Birmingham Royal Ballet earlier this year.

The production design was inspired by Japanese traditional art. Bintley was impressed by the wood prints of the artist Kuniyoshi Utagawa, and many characters, such as the Yokai (grotesques) and sea-horses have Japanese influences. Stage designs by Tony Award winner Rae Smith are breathtaking, adding a magical, oriental atmosphere to the ballet. With delicate paper-crafted cherry blossom flowers, paper-cut Mount Fuji, the use of Ukiyoe backdrops, and sensitive Kimono costumes, the Japanese audience can feel there is a deep understanding and respect for their culture here.

The Prince of the Pagodas © Takashi Shikama
The Prince of the Pagodas
© Takashi Shikama

Bintley’s choreographic and story-telling talent appears in the second act, where Sakura enters the kingdom of the Salamander and has to go through the numerous ordeals of wind, water and fire. Representing clouds, stars and bubbles, the corps de ballet were dressed in lavishly designed tutus and choreographed in clever structures and patterns. The sinister Epine transforms herself into a seductive octopus and flirts with sea creatures, then threatens Sakura as a burning flame. Sakura and the Salamander reaches a tropical kingdom with Balinese dancers and Pagodas in tune with the gamelan style music. All of Sakura’s adventures are presented in an enchanting and entertaining way, a feast to the eye with the weird but charming creatures, imaginative stage productions and crisp dancing.

Unfortunately the choreography of the other two acts are not so attractive as in the second act, although each of the divertissements have character. Each of the four Kings asking Sakura to marry them has a unique and characteristic solo, but the first act is much too long. The final pas de deux of Sakura and the Salamander Prince shows off the virtuoso technique and musicality of the dancers, but lacks emotion as the story is not one of lovers but of siblings. Although it has tricky partnering, it is not such a memorable scene.

The Prince of the Pagodas © Takashi Shikama
The Prince of the Pagodas
© Takashi Shikama

Despite those flaws, the enchantment of the magnificent production design, lovable characters and coherent story-telling made this ballet an enjoyable entertainment. The marvelous performers of the National Ballet of Japan did a great job. Ayako Ono was the original Sakura cast in this creation. Her strength, poise and flawless technique as the fighting princess portrayed an impressive heroine. Yudai Fukuoka showed his versatility within his transformation from the slithery Salamander to the Prince, and his crisp, swift turns were remarkable. Mamiko Yukawa’s glamour and charisma as the hideous empress Epine were stunning and overwhelming. But the most memorable character was the court jester, Keigo Fukuda’s charms and tricky movements were much loved by the audience as much as the grotesque but adorable Yokais.

This was the last performance under the directorship of David Bintley. The audience cried tears of appreciation of the director who created this homage to the Japanese people, and brought a new direction to the theatre. Before his era, their repertoire mainly consisted of 19th century classics and were dependent on guest stars, but Bintley introduced many novel productions of the 20th century and enhanced talent within the company. He will be missed, and there are concerns that the new director Noriko Ohara will turn the clock back to the times before his arrival. Nevertheless, the company has matured significantly within the 4 years of Bintley’s direction and his legacy will live on.