The Prince of the Pagodas has always been a problem ballet. The gorgeous Benjamin Britten score is tied to a confused fairy-tale plot, a jumble of King Lear with Beauty and the Beast. Kenneth MacMillan’s version, created for The Royal Ballet in in 1989, launched the career of Darcey Bussell but soon faded from the repertory. It’s easy to see why. Despite the music, sumptuous designs and a handful of striking dances, the ballet keeps losing its way.
This Royal Ballet revival is an attempt to reclaim Pagodas. Staged by Monica Mason and Grant Coyle, the ballet has been trimmed and tightened. The story is still a sticking point. Britten wrote the score in 1957, to a meandering scenario by choreographer John Cranko. When MacMillan came to it, Britten’s estate was reluctant to let him cut or reorder the music, though it did allow changes to the scenario.
MacMillan and his librettist Colin Thubron kept the story of good princess Rose and her wicked sister Epine, who snatches kingdom and turns Rose’s beloved into a salamander. They changed the second act into a dreamscape, an attempt to give Rose some psychological depth.
Instead, it makes the ballet fall between two stools. Rose’s dreams are so thoroughly stage-managed by the court Fool that we don’t get much sense of her choices. She meets the four kings who have already asked for her hand in marriage – which means four scenes of sexual aggression, one after another.
The stage is so busy that soloist moments are often lost against the clutter of the court. In this revival, that’s not helped by sloppy corps dancing. Epine turns her father’s courtiers into monkeys – they wear brilliant animal masks, with tufted wigs and Elizabethan costumes – but vague dancing blurs the point of MacMillan’s simian steps. Turned human again, the corps scramble through their celebration dance.
Marianela Nuñez is a sweet-hearted Rose, goodness in her soaring jump and diamond-sharp footwork. Nehemiah Kish makes a bland hero, wriggling through his salamander transformation without pain or yearning. Their final, formal pas de deux is the ballet’s best moment, Nuñez dancing with glowing authority.
Tamara Rojo is charismatic and stroppy as Epine. Steven McRae stands out as the foppish King of the West, his dancing wittily quick. Nicholas Georgiadis’ designs are superb: Elizabethan costumes in wonderful shade-dyed colours, bronzed battlements and flags. Barry Wordsworth conducts Britten’s chiming, shimmering score.
Until 29 June. Box office 020 7304 4000.