The celebrations marking the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten draw to a close at the end of the 2013-14 season, and one of the closing highlights is the London premiere of David Bintley’s The Prince of the Pagodas by the Birmingham Royal Ballet. The Prince of the Pagodas was the only full-length ballet score composed by Britten, and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s interpretation – with new choreography by Bintley – is the only complete production to be performed during the year-long, world-wide dedications to one of the greatest composers in 20th century British classical music.
John Cranko was the first choreographer to create a three-act ballet to the score, which was commissioned from Britten, and premiered by the Royal Ballet in 1957. Kenneth MacMillan subsequently undertook a major reworking of the ballet, placing greater emphasis on its narrative qualities, and his interpretation was premiered by The Royal Ballet in 1989 as part of a gala in celebration of his 60th birthday.
It was in 1979, between these two productions, that Dame Ninette de Valois suggested to David Bintley that he should listen to Britten’s score for The Prince of the Pagodas. “Unfortunately,” says Bintley, “a complete recording of the ballet wasn’t available at the time, but I got hold of the extended highlights, conducted by Britten, and found that I loved Britten’s score.”
Nevertheless, it took more than 30 years for Bintley to complete his recreation, and although he had studied under MacMillan during his training at the Royal Ballet, it was Cranko’s version which he revisited when considering his own interpretation. “In the original,” Bintley says, “there’s a Beauty and the Beast-type premise where a Princess falls in love with a Salamander, but there really isn’t a struggle towards love; there are very few romantic moments in the action … I thought it was far better to make it a different type of love story. Not a man for a woman, but a sister for a brother, and a father for a son – a love for the family.”
Bintley’s restructured plot was based on a Japanese fairytale, and inspired by the paintings of Japanese artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi, thus drawing together both British and Japanese cultures in his production. The ballet was premiered by the National Ballet of Japan in October 2011, and the United Kingdom premiere took place in January of this year at The Lowry in Salford.
The Prince of the Pagodas is the latest in the list of full length ballets choreographed by Bintley, the award-winning Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, and – since 2010 – Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Japan. Others include Hobson’s Choice, Edward II, Far from the Madding Crowd, Cinderella and Aladdin.
The highly imaginative set and costumes for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of The Prince of the Pagodas are by award-winning British designer, Rae Smith, whose impressive line-up of designs includes War Horse for the National Theatre – which won her an Olivier Award in 2008, and an Evening Standard Best Design Award in 2007. This is her first collaboration with David Bintley.
The Birmingham Royal Ballet is accompanied by the Company’s full-time orchestra, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, directed by Koen Kessels, and performances of The Prince of the Pagodas take place at the London Coliseum from Wednesday 26th to Saturday 29th March. Tickets may be bought from www.eno.org, by calling 020 7845 9300, or in person at The London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4ES.