If you had to name a composition by Benjamin Britten, I’m betting that The Prince of the Pagodas wouldn’t be your first choice. You may not even have heard of it. It was Britten’s only ballet score but, for various reasons, it has languished at the bottom of Britten’s barrel since it was written in 1957.
However, this unloved child is soon to step into the limelight courtesy of David Bintley, artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
“I’ve been thinking about this for 30 years,” Bintley tells Northern Soul. “I finally did it in Japan [in 2011] as I’m a director of the National Ballet of Japan as well as the Birmingham Royal Ballet. I made it for them and transplanted the action to a mythical Japan, re-wrote the story because the story was not very clever…But you can’t really get under the skin of the piece in six performances so I knew I had to have another go at it and improve what I did in 2011.”
According to Bintley, in the original Prince of the Pagodas there is 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 and very few romantic moments in the action”. So Bintley decided to transform the story into a radically different tale of love – not the love of a man for a woman but a sister for a brother and a father for a son. In essence, Bintley’s version is a love for family.
So, what is the driving force behind the choreography?
“The main inspiration as ever is the music itself. I really want this score to get a foothold in the repertory. The original ballet is set in a mythical China so setting it in Japan is not that different. I came across an artist called Kuniyoshi [one of the last great masters of Japanese ukiyo-e paintings] and it was just perfect.”
Bintley’s bringing together of British and Japanese culture and mythologies, combined with award-winning designer Rae Smith’s set and costumes (Smith won accolades for her work on War Horse at the National Theatre) should make for an arresting production. Why does Bintley think that this work by Britten has been overlooked for so long?
“The problems are numerous,” he says. “The story itself didn’t really work very well. It’s a love story but it doesn’t seem to have much reason, purpose or conclusion to it. The score is over-long and for many years it was forbidden to cut it at all. Dramatically, there are too many loose ends. For instance, there is no reason that the Prince is a salamander. I’ve tried to correct all that. I’ve made it shorter and changed the story. But it’s still a moving and powerful story.”
A ballet based on Japanese myth is a far cry from Bintley’s upbringing in Huddersfield. Although he now regards himself as a “Brummie more than anything else”, Bintley believes that his Northern childhood was “character forming in a way”. Since those formative years, Bintley’s star has shone brightly; along the way he danced for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet before becoming resident choreographer in 1983. After some work abroad, he returned to the Royal Ballet in 1995 as artistic director some five years after the company relocated to Birmingham and adopted its new name.
“As always, ballet continues to absorb all other dance trends,” muses Bintley. “The biggest trend now is of choreographers coming from outside of a classical background and working in ballet. It keeps us alive and vital.”
He adds: “Ballet is far more political and far more business astute than we had to be 10, 20 years ago. It has changed some of the nature of what we do. We have to look towards the box office a lot more but we are still an art form. The Prince of the Pagodas’ performance is in-between that – it’s a great story with exciting scenery and characters and a big draw to all sorts of people, but it’s still a great work of art.”
By Helen Nugent
The Prince of the Pagodas is premiering at The Lowry on January 30 and is on in Salford until February 1 before going on tour. Click here for ticket information: http://www.thelowry.com/event/the-prince-of-the-pagodas