Most fairy tales have a dark side and yet there’s something particularly unsettling about Kenneth MacMillan’s fairy tale for grown ups, The Prince of the Pagodas. While it employs many of the standard themes of the fairy tale ballet, familial dysfunction and alarming transformation, the choreography is full of sinister angles and the music, by Benjamin Britten, has the capacity to unnerve.
When the ageing ruler unwisely gives the majority of his kingdom to his virtuous daughter Rose, his elder daughter Épine responds by turning Rose’s Prince into a salamander and seizing the crown for herself. In the ensuing power struggle four Kings try to win whichever Princess they believe will take power, while Rose must learn to love the writhing salamander before regaining her crown.
Although Britten originally composed the music in the 1950s for John Cranko, this version was choreographed by Kenneth Macmillan in 1989, a production in which Darcey Bussell made her debut in a principal role. For the audience, the production’s aesthetic requires some mental adjustment as the set consists of ‘cardboard’ fantasy castles which are deliberately rickety and collapse at climatic moments. The corps de ballet consists of baboons dressed in courtly outfits, who move about the stage in a series of crouching leaps, their arms swinging.
These elements although initially disconcerting are also responsible for making the ballet such a memorable experience. As the four suitors dance, their nervousness reflects the fact that the onlooking baboons are almost baying for blood. The corps de ballet’s first large dance in the final scene could pass for a show-piece number, and yet its inherent humour is tempered with an ironic, satirical edge.
As Princess Rose, Marianela Nuñez’s elegance and expression belie the magnitude of the space she passes through, and the extent to which her entire body has to be given over to such movements. As her Prince, Nehemiah Kish shares in her joy and meticulous approach during their pas de deux, while also conveying both physical and emotional pain as the writhing salamander. Tamara Rojo, as Princess Épine, revels in the role, bringing a spiky insouciance to her superlative classical technique, while Alexander Campbell excels as the Fool with his asymmetrical spinning. Although the doddery ruler is predominantly a character role, Alastair Marriott puts a lifetime of experience into executing the part, while Steven McRae’s foppish King of the West stands out among the quartet of suitors: the Kings of North, South, East and West.
The ballet itself is a strong, distinctive piece. Between Britten’s score of sliding strings and xylophones and MacMillan’s choreography with its specific steps that, although executed with classical finesse, might almost pass for Lindy Hop or Flamenco, it leaves a considerable impression.
Casts vary over the run. For further details visit the Royal Opera House website.