David Bintley discusses the changes that he made to the plot of The Prince of the Pagodas, and how the story was influenced by Japanese culture:
Cranko’s original scenario tells the tale of an Emperor who must decide which of his two daughters should inherit his throne. Inexplicably he chooses the evil older sister, Belle Epine, over the younger and more beautiful Belle Rose. Belle Rose is subsequently taken by magical flying frogs to Pagoda Land and meets the Prince of Pagoda Land, who has been transformed into a Salamander for some reason we never discover, and by someone we never meet.
Belle Rose and the Prince return to the land of her father and confront her evil sister, in the end driving her away. A kiss for the Salamander from Belle Rose magics the Salamander back into a Prince. Not exactly Shakespeare!
[While in Japan] I went to a couple of museums and in one of them found a book of ukiyo-e, a Japanese style of woodblock printing, most of them by an artist called Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Looking through this one, single book, there was, in Japanese form, everything that was in Pagodas! It had monsters, waves, fire, animals, frogs, warriors, even Westerners – Japanese woodcuts of Westerners when they first started arriving in Japan in the 1800s after Japan’s long, self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world.
It suddenly became clear to me that I could do a Japanese version of this story.
This led me to an interest in the Japanese Royal family, who trace their genealogy back to the Gods, and suddenly there were so many interesting and relevant side elements to a rather one-dimensional fairy story – everything from the imaginary monsters of Japanese folk culture, to the country’s relationship with the rest of the world, having cut themselves off for 250 years during theTokugawa Shogunate.
A huge expanse of Japanese identity and cultural history suddenly landed on this ballet, and it fitted perfectly! ‘Revelation’ doesn’t even begin to describe it!
This brought me round to thinking about the story too, in a fresh way.In the original, despite the Beauty-and-the-Beast-like theme engendered by the Princess and the Salamander, there isn’t really a struggle towards love; there are very few ‘romantic’ moments in the action and really no romantic or passionate music in the score itself.
How on earth to make this love story without those elements?
My idea then was to make a different kind of love story. Not a man for a woman, but a sister for a brother, and a father for a son. A love for family, which is such a feature of Japanese life.
Following on from this, a family outsider, an evil usurping step mother – archetypal fairytale stuff – became the wicked sister, the Emperor, a weak figure, dominated by the Empress and a son and brother lost, feared dead.
The story then becomes about the sister finding the brother, and the whole family being re-united. Princess Sakura (Cherry Blossom) journeys towards Pagoda Land through a series of trials, each of which must be overcome; the elements of air, fire and water all become manifestations of the evil Empress Epine, who pursues Sakura in the guise of the moon, a fire demon and an octopus.
This article is part of an alphabetical list of highlights that feature in our 2013-14 season. For the full list as it unfolds, see the Birmingham Royal Ballet Facebook page.