What is incredible about dance productions is the realisation that words are not always necessary and that so much is expressed through our body language. A three-hour story can be told through the language of movement and music and is sometimes more powerful than verbal expression.
Ballet is a fascinating art form: it’s structured and choreographed at the same time as being free and expressional, somehow combining harmony and chaos in human form. Benjamin Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas resembles this beautifully with lots of different ballet genres represented by diverse characters, humans and monsters combined by one common language: dance.
Princess Belle Sakura’s stepmother, the Empress Épine, is trying to win full control over the empire by marrying her off to one of four kings. Princess Sakura refuses, still mourning her brother’s death, and escapes her stepmother’s wish as a fifth suitor arrives, an ugly but mysterious Salamander. He steals her away from the palace and throws her into different challenges from each of the elements – earth, air, fire and water – all resembling her oppressed life at court and the destructive power of her stepmother. Arriving in the Salamander’s kingdom, Pagoda Land, Princess Sakura learns that he is really her lost brother who’s been cursed by their stepmother in order for her to control the empire. Together they have to confront her to win back the kingdom and lift the curse.
The Prince of the Pagodas is a classic fairy-tale along the lines of Beauty and the Beast, and expressing it through dance and Britten’s playful and beautiful score seems to serve the story perfectly. David Bintley’s choreography is graceful, inventive and nuanced with a strong emphasis on character which makes this story work so well unspoken. Rae Smith’s design is stunning as always, and the imaginative costume designs for the creatures in Pagoda Land are striking and hilarious at the same time. The company is impressive and work organically together, but it is impossible not to be in awe of the soloists and their talent, especially Tzu-Chao Chou’s comic timing as the Fool, Joseph Caley’s diversity as the Salamander Prince, and Elisha Willis’s incredible range, both emotionally and physically, as Empress Épine.
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Prince of the Pagodas is a visually majestic performance, using one impressive creation after another to form the magical world of Pagoda. It’s a ballet that’s funny, light and great for introducing children to the theatre. However, having to convey the story only through dance and music, it faults slightly with its story-telling as the reference to the lost prince almost indicates the loss of a lover – which could be interpreted as why Princess Sakura doesn’t want to marry. Being swept away to Pagoda Land we could easily mistake it for another take on Beauty and the Beast with Belle falling in love with the Beast and for their love to lift the spell. This is the story I believed I watched at London Coliseum – and then I read they were brother and sister. Maybe it’s my own stupidity, or something unclear in the direction.
That said The Prince of the Pagodas is highly enjoyable and I would strongly recommend it to anyone with children. And anything that’s got dancing seahorses and Cyclops definitely has my approval.
The Prince of the Pagodas is playing at London Coliseum until 29 March. For more information and tickets, see the London Coliseum website.