Britten’s ballet score for The Prince of the Pagodas was commissioned in 1954 for a three-act ballet by John Cranko, mounted by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1957. For the scenario, Cranko had conflated a number of fables: Beauty and the Beast, The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and King Lear. He apparently regarded the plot as a thread on which to hang a series of divertissements. Britten provided more music than Cranko found he required but refused to allow the score to be cut or reordered.

The ballet proved unwieldy and was dropped from the repertoire. (Cranko mounted it for the Stuttgart and La Scala companies but was never satisfied with it.) Over the years that followed, MacMillan came under pressure to use the neglected score by a great British composer. He tried several times to find a writer to rethink the scenario until he finally succeeded, in the late 1980s, with Colin Thubron, novelist and travel writer.

Thubron adapted Cranko’s story line into a rite of passage for the heroine, Princess Rose. He had to retain the structure of Britten’s descriptive score, while changing Rose’s journey from a fairyland adventure into an adolescent girl’s search for her identity as a woman. The Britten estate (the composer had died in 1976) would still not allow the music to be cut. The score had never been recorded in full, so MacMillan had to choreograph to piano reductions of music he had yet to hear.

The basic plot in the 1989 ballet remains much the same as Cranko’s original scenario. Princess Rose is the younger daughter of an aged emperor who has decided to hand over his kingdom before he dies. He has invited four kings from the corners of the earth to court his elder daughter, Princess Epine. When they prefer Rose, malicious Epine seizes control of the kingdom and evicts Rose.

all photographs © of Leslie E. Spatt

Rose travels to the magical Land of the Pagodas, where she encounters a prince who has been turned into a salamander. Repelled, she flees, returning home to find her father and the court abused and manipulated by Epine. The salamander prince comes to the rescue, transformed back into human shape by Rose’s compassion. They marry, to general rejoicing.

MacMillan’s ballet opens with a prologue in which the Lear-like emperor divides his kingdom between his daughters, Epine grabbing the larger portion. The prince-turned-salamander is glimpsed in bestial distress, a vision before the ballet proper begins. Rose, her father’s favourite daughter, has a companion, a wise fool. He acts as a kind of shaman, escorting exiled Rose on a symbolic journey of discovery through her subconscious fears and desires.

These are embodied in the four suitor-kings, as well as the scaly salamander. Rose has to confront her conflicting feelings of attraction and repulsion in order to grow into maturity. The music for the four kings’ phantasmagoric appearance in Act II during Rose’s journey is appropriated from music originally intended for a corps of watery creatures and spikey flames. The King of the South is the most earthy and overtly sexual of the four suitors. Rose rejects them all, and then has to deal with her confused reactions to the reptilian prince once she reaches the Land of the Pagodas.

To depict the magic kingdom, Britten had transcribed for Western instruments the sounds of a gamelan orchestra he had heard in Bali. In the context of the ballet, the effect is both mysterious and sensual. Disoriented, Rose dances blindfold with the prince in human form, learning to trust him, then witnesses his beastly transformation. He pleads for her to accept his hateful condition, and she cradles him in her arms as Act II ends.

Act III reveals that the court, under Epine’s misrule, has become simian. The doddering emperor is in a wheelchair, threatened and abused by Epine and the four kings. Rose returns and goes to comfort her father. Suddenly, the salamander appears in the same pleading posture as the emperor. Rose kisses the salamander, thereby saving her father and the kingdom through an act of love.

The stage clears as the monkey courtiers vanish, giving way to airy spirits celebrating a new regime. Rose and the prince, now restored to human form, declare their commitment to each other in a pas de deux. The elements of evil still remain to be routed. Epine rallies the four kings, each of whom attacks the prince. He sees them off, along with their retinues. Epine surrenders her crown, which Rose restores to the emperor.

The prince and Rose express their joy in solo variations before uniting in the coda to their interrupted pas de deux. The emperor rejoices, as do the courtiers and corps of airy spirits in a series of divertissements. The happy couple return wearing ceremonial cloaks and the Fool joins their hands in matrimony as the curtain falls.

Georgiadis set the ballet in a not-very-specific Elizabethan period, a fabulous past. Court dress is indicated by ruffs and paniers, with monkey masks at the start of Act III. The emperor’s domain is represented by miniature castles, the salamander-prince’s by mobile pagodas and long oriental banners

The Prince of the Pagodas marked MacMillan’s reversion to the conventions of classical ballet, albeit with his own signature. The choreography makes use of intricate academic steps, as well as character dances for the court, the kings and the emperor. There are references to The Sleeping Beauty in the courtship formalities of the four suitors and in the Act III Grand Pas for Rose and her prince. The divertissements for spirits described as Clouds in the cast list are displays of technically skilled dancing as in a 19th century ballet, with the attendant problem for a 20th century ballet that they do not advance the story. MacMillan, like Cranko before him, found that Britten had provided too much music. Cuts were eventually agreed after the new ballet’s first season, but its structure, a combination of fairy tale and Freudian psychology, is not convincingly supported by the score.

MacMillan created the role of Princess Rose on 19-year-old Darcey Bussell. He used her physical attributes and fresh, open personality to define Rose’s character. Unlike the flawed heroines in many of his ballets, Rose is forthright and compassionate, undamaged by her rite of passage from innocence to experience. The duplicitous side of female nature is revealed in Epine, who exploits her sexuality to gain power. The salamander prince is both man and beast, trapped in a disguise he longs to abandon. The scenario, however, never explains his back story. He turns into a standard Prince Charming for the ballet’s happy ending.

  • First performance: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 7 December 1989

  • Company: The Royal Ballet

  • Cast: Darcey Bussell, Jonathan Cope, Tetsuya Kumakawa, Fiona Chadwick, Anthony Dowell

  • Music: Benjamin Britten, The Prince of the Pagodas, Op. 57

  • Design: Nicholas Georgiadis

  • Benesh notation score: Monica Parker/ Michele Braban (1989). Master score

  • Video: DVD (NVC arts), 50-51865-0348-2-7