tue 23/09/2014

The Prince of the Pagodas, The Royal Ballet | Dance reviews, news & interviews

The Prince of the Pagodas, The Royal Ballet

The problems of Kenneth MacMillan's fairytale are the performers', not the creators'

Beige: Marianela Nuñez and Nehemiah Kish as Princess Rose and her Prince (cum salamander)© Johan Persson/ROH

As Mrs Thatcher used to say, don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions. Solutions have been flung with a will at the problem ballet of Kenneth MacMillan’s last years, his orientalist fairytale The Prince of the Pagodas - the Royal Ballet’s retiring director Monica Mason revived it last night as one of her last presentations, determined that a new generation should have the chance to love it.

Cut, tightened up, re-edited 10 years after its choreographer’s death (a collaboration between MacMillan’s widow and the Royal Ballet, with the reluctant blessing of the Benjamin Britten Estate), The Prince of the Pagodas remains an adult fairytale of many riches, narrative, scenic, choreographic, and it has above all the magnetic draw of a properly fabulous score. I felt the ballet’s magic on its last outing at Covent Garden in 1996, but last night I was less enchanted. Some of this I would put down to habitual Royal Ballet first-night rawness, but also some unconvincing casting that hardly ensured the new edition would carry the ballet into the audience’s hearts.

In first-night casting the virtuous team were almost entirely trounced by the dark forces

The best fairytales reveal the abyss, unfathomable mystery, the eternal war between evil and goodness. MacMillan’s take is contemporary, much indebted to the unsuccessful originating Pagodas ballet of his friend and colleague, John Cranko, yet there are several juicy personal MacMillan themes here, male brutality, dysfunctional families, vulnerable innocence. Many children’s stories echo in Pagodas - from The Sleeping Beauty to Alice in Wonderland to The Frog Prince - but the journey faced by Princess Rose is a stark Freudian nightmare of faceless, unpleasant men, and her dream prince has been turned into a salamander, a slithery thing who wriggles on the ground.

Family life is hell: her father, the Emperor, is a crippled Lear who unwisely portions his lands between his two daughters, Rose getting most, and therefore suffering the rage of her black-hearted sister Épine, who seizes the crown and casts a reptilian transformation over Rose’s handsome prince. Her minder, and in some ways her magical protector, is the court Fool, who both enlightens her understanding of adulthood and also counters her sorceress sister’s powers, like the Lilac Fairy blowing away Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty. Then there is the pivotal dramatic difficulty which is the matter of the Prince himself, who switches between salamander and himself without warning, sometimes “real”, sometimes “dream”, not always well-signalled for the audience.

This is complicated territory, and it’s spectacularly set by the late Nicholas Georgiadis in a sort of toy Tudor palace full of courtiers with hugely stuffed breeches, big hair and big sticks, a satirical setting that reminds me of the subversive theatrics of Punch and Judy. Yet it’s not children’s stuff, and it needs stirring dramatic and dancing performances in the key roles to unify it into a strong magical fable for adults.

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