What do you do when your dad divides up the kingdom and gives your sister the larger share? You turn her boyfriend into a salamander and put a curse on the court, of course. Or that's what happens in Kenneth MacMillan’s 1989 ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. It hasn’t been performed for 16 years, but Monica Mason brings it back to the stage this month in her final season as Royal Ballet artistic director.
MacMillan is better known for his dramatic portrayals of prostitution, violence and death rather than magical curses in palatial kingdoms. But he makes the Pagodas story more pertinent by focussing on the human themes of sibling rivalry and a young woman’s journey into her subconscious.
As sweet Princess Rose, Marianela Nuñez moves with fluid grace; her delicate steps onto pointe contrast with vivacious leaps. Prince Nehemiah Kish performs bravura jumps with ease and the couple’s gorgeous Act 3 pas de deux is the evening’s highlight. Also pleasing is a commanding and forceful Tamara Rojo as evil older sister Épine.
But there are many aspects to this ballet that leave a lot to be desired. Cursed courtiers are transformed into scratching and swaying baboons that detract from the main action onstage and make court scenes chaotic. The ballet’s pace also feels slow, with more inane and hollow movement than enticing choreography.
Benjamin Britten’s score was originally created for John Cranko’s 1950s version and is one that divides audiences. It is considered by many to be a masterpiece of modern music, but its striking and highly percussive sounds prove discordant and jarring for others.
It is exciting to see The Prince of the Pagodas back in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire, but this production doesn’t soar to the supreme heights of MacMillan’s other works.
By Laura Dodge. Photo by Johan Persson