Cloud Dance Festival | David Wilson
David Wilson, better known to many as DaveTriesBallet, is an adult ballet student and enthusiast who only attended his first ballet class a year and a half ago, and now trains regularly and performs with several local ballet groups in Bath and Bristol. You can follow his adventures on his blog or find him on Twitter at @davetriesballet.
In one of her final decisions as Director of the Royal Ballet, Dame Monica Mason has revived Kenneth MacMillan's 1989 work "The Prince of the Pagodas". A reworking of John Cranko's original piece to a commissioned Benjamin Britten score, it tells the tale of Belle Rose, the youngest daughter of the Emperor of a mysterious land. After her jealous older sister, Belle Épine, discovers her father's plan to leave most of his kingdom to Belle Rose, she transforms her sister's Prince into a Salamander and banishes him to the Kingdom of the Flying Frogs (seriously). The Emperor tries to marry Belle Épine off to a collection of Kings from far off lands, but when they see Belle Rose they ignore Belle Épine, prompting her to steal her father's throne and hold court with her entourage of baboons (again, seriously). Belle Rose travels to rescue her Prince and in the process grows into a confident woman, brave enough to return and confront her sister and recover the Empire for her father. The happy couple end up getting married, officiated by a mischievous Fool (who seemingly moonlights as a Priest), and live happily ever after, albeit in a most peculiar setting.
At the heart of it, Pagodas is about Belle Rose's journey. Originally choreographed for Darcey Bussell, it was a big role to fill, but Marianela Nuñez did just that, giving a graceful yet powerful performance as the young heroine. One of the top ballerinas in the country, her musicality is second-to-none, and it is needed for Britten's Gamelan-influenced score. Stepping delicately across the irregular rhythms, Nuñez is as impressive with floating posé arabesques as she is leaping across the stage (one grand jeté in particular had so much height it garnered a gasp from me).
As the Prince, Nehemiah Kish gave arguably his best performance yet at the Royal Opera House. His portrayal of the transfigured Prince made for a bittersweet second act, the final image of Belle Rose comforting the poor creature being particularly memorable.
The jealous sister, Belle Épine, was played by the inimitable Tamara Rojo. Milking the role for all its worth, she strutted around the stage, flirted with both Kings and baboons, and attacked the choreography with vigour. Unfortunately, Belle Épine's role has been cut down significantly in this revival, leaving her with little to do outside of Act I.
Supporting roles were all admirably danced. Of particular note was Alexander Campbell as the interfering Fool and all four suitors: Bennet Gartside, Valeri Hristov, Steven McRae and Ricardo Cervera. With shockingly exaggerated characters, they offered welcome light relief to the first act, but then turned sinister (and, for some reason, bald) for the second act while tormenting Belle Rose in the Other World. Credit must also go to the superb design team, although I was less enamoured with some of the costumes. Although effective whilst dancing, the sisters' half-skirts seemed rather unladylike and the Kings' costumes seemed very dated. And why were the baboons the best-dressed characters of all?
Pagodas is not a perfect work, in fact it is far from it. There are many components that I would happily cut or alter: the swarm of baboons in the first act and the Courtiers in Act III immediately spring to mind for making their acts feel slightly laboured. Contrasting this, however, are some stunning pas de deux sections between Belle Rose and her Prince in each act (featuring some devilish lifts and promenades) and clever segments for all three main characters with the suitors (requiring a very trusting Belle Épine being thrown from King to King). I would argue that these more than make up for the weaker sections, although others may disagree.
There is much in Pagodas to divide opinion: the score, the story, the corps sections and more. However, the performances bring this piece alive and the chance to see Marianela Nuñez and Tamara Rojo dance on the same stage is worth the ticket price alone. It has been 16 years since The Prince of the Pagodas last graced the Royal Opera House stage and I, for one, am glad it is back. Judging by the rapturous applause throughout the auditorium, I may not be alone.
We cannot yet confirm dates for our next festival/s.