The Prince of the Pagodas

Is this ballet for you?

Go If: You are team MacMillan. You are into post-Freudian themes, juicy dramas and pashmina pas de deux and would love to see how this choreographer approached the 19th century fairy tale ballet genre.

Skip If: You are expecting Manon and/or Romeo and Juliet reloaded. Here we are in a different territory: “pure-at-heart Princess saves Prince and entire kingdom from evil” where the meshing of several fairy tale references somehow blurs the narrative.

Sarah Lamb as Princess Rose and Federico Bonelli as the Prince

Sarah Lamb as Princess Rose and Federico Bonelli as the Prince - Photo: © Alice Pennefather

Dream Cast

Your call! Having been created for a then 19-year-old Darcey Bussell, the current revival at the Royal Opera House sees a complete new generation of Princesses Rose who now bring their own gifts to a challenging classical role, custom made for a Long Tall Sally.

Background & Cranko’s Version

John Cranko had met composer Benjamin Britten in 1952. Soon after, they started collaborating on opera productions like Gloriana and Peter Grimes. Around that time, Ninette De Valois had decided to shake the repertory at Covent Garden commissioning work from her young resident choreographers: a three-act ballet from Cranko (then 29) and a one-act ballet from Kenneth MacMillan (27), Noctambules, his first work for the senior company. Cranko started working on a “mythological fairy tale” and his main plot would come via 17th century fairy tale The Green Serpent (Serpentin Vert) by Madame D’Aulnoy, with add-ons from King Lear and other tales. With no composer on board initially, Cranko was surprised when Britten himself volunteered for the job.

Valentino Zucchetti as the Fool

Valentino Zucchetti as the Fool - Photo: © Alice Pennefather

From the outset Britten would find the creative process challenging: Cranko had only provided him with a structured synopsis instead of comprehensive guidance. Among delays and missed deadlines, a stay in Bali and a keen interest on Balinese Gamelan music would eventually heavily influence Britten’s score. The Prince of the Pagodas finally premiered on New Year’s Day in 1957 to mixed reception and 23 performances. The ballet was revived sporadically and finally dropped from the repertory in 1960, after a total of 34 performances.

Kenneth MacMillan

After the retirement of Cranko’s Pagodas, De Valois was intent on using the score for a new version: “It is all there to be re-choreographed” she wrote in her book, Step by Step. Having mentioned a possible reworking in an interview for The Daily Mail (1976), MacMillan consulted with Nicholas Georgiadis and together they concluded that Cranko’s libretto had to be reworked and the score cut, provided Britten would agree. But the project had to be abandoned: Britten had passed away before agreeing to any cuts and the executors of his estate refused to listen to MacMillan’s reasoning.

In 1983 the Royal Ballet had added a new commission of The Prince of the Pagodas to MacMillan’s contract and, in the years that followed, the idea of choreographing a ballet in the classical tradition would become very attractive to him. Having revived his neoclassical work Le Baiser de la Fée and staged his production of The Sleeping Beauty for ABT, he felt ready for the challenge. MacMillan decided not to reject Cranko’s ideas but to re-work the libretto, as the music strongly evoked the ballet’s original plot.

Sarah Lamb as Princess Rose, Federico Bonelli as the Salamander Prince and Valentino Zucchetti as the Fool in The Prince of the Pagodas

Sarah Lamb as Princess Rose, Federico Bonelli as the Salamander Prince and Valentino Zucchetti as the Fool in MacMillan's The Prince of the Pagodas - Photo: © Alice Pennefather

MacMillan worked with writer Colin Thubron reshaping Pagodas as the story of an “adolescent girl’s search for her identity.” Thubron re-imagined the journey to the Land of the Pagodas as a symbolic journey through Rose’s subconscious. Instead of being rescued by the salamander, she would become his rescuer. The character of the Fool – originally a nod to King Lear – represents Rose’s conscience. The suitors would appear in nightmares representing Rose’s fears about entering womanhood.

He also drew parallels between the characters of the Prince and the Emperor, both vulnerable and disfigured and both saved by Rose as an act of compassion. When she first encounters the salamander Prince, Rose feels pity but no love (Act II). But after his reappearance in court (Act III), Rose kisses him and through the power of love, manages to restore his human form. Together they defeat the four suitors and Rose’s evil sister Épine (note the contrast in the names Rose and Épine = French for “thorn”).

Marianela Nuñez and Nehemiah Kish in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's The Prince of the Pagodas

Marianela Nuñez and Nehemiah Kish in The Prince of the Pagodas - Photo: © Johan Persson / ROH

It took MacMillan a total of 22 months to finalise his Prince of the Pagodas as during the creative process – and while traveling with the Company to Australia in 1988 – the choreographer suffered a heart attack. Having once again teamed up with Georgiadis for the designs, MacMillan chose a young corps de ballet member, Darcey Bussell, as his Princess Rose, the elegant Jonathan Cope as the Salamander Prince and Lesley Collier (eventually replaced by Fiona Chadwick due to pregnancy) as Épine.

MacMillan considered the result to be his homage to all of Petipa, Cranko, Ashton and De Valois. The new Prince of the Pagodas finally premiered on 7 December 1989, to mixed reception from critics who found the choreography inventive, yet the plot unsatisfactory.

David Bintley

More recently, British choreographer David Bintley created a new production of The Prince of the Pagodas for the National Ballet of Japan, where he is Artistic Director. Working with Britten’s score, Bintley took inspiration from Japanese artwork and the ukiyo-e prints of Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Bintley’s version of Pagodas premiered on 30 October 2011 and is scheduled to be performed in the UK in 2014 by Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Gary Avis as the Emperor

Gary Avis as the Emperor - Photo: © Alice Pennefather

Synopsis (MacMillan version)

Act I

The Court

The curtains open to reveal Princess Rose, youngest daughter of the Emperor, playing a blindfold game with the “Fool” (a jester). They are joined by Rose’s betrothed, the Prince.

At court, Rose’s father the Emperor enters with an entourage of doctors and Rose’s half-sister, Princess Épine. Old and sickly, the Emperor decides to divide his Kingdom between the two daughters and bequeaths – à la King Lear – the largest share to his favourite, Rose. Furious, Épine lays a curse on the Empire, turning courtiers into baboons and Rose’s Prince into a salamander (yet miraculously, Rose, Fool and the Emperor escape the spell).

Laura Morera (Princess Épine), Bennet Gartside (King of the North), Johannes Stepanek (King of the East) and Brian Maloney (King of the South)

Laura Morera (Princess Épine), Bennet Gartside (King of the North), Johannes Stepanek (King of the East) and Brian Maloney (King of the South) - Photo: © Alice Pennefather

With the Empire in chaos, Kings from the four corners of the Earth – North, East, West and South – arrive to acquire the lands by marriage. The Emperor ushers Princess Épine to dance for them and as they start to court her, the Fool runs to find Rose who reluctantly introduces herself. As she does so, she has a vision of the Salamander Prince who appears to her in his human shape and, as she tries to hold on, he vanishes as if into another world.

Each of the four kings now court Rose but – thinking of her Prince – she rejects them, while Épine furious with jealousy tries to seduce them. Épine takes hold of the Emperor’s crown and while mayhem breaks out, the Fool casts a spell over the court and leads Princess Rose to “The Other Land”.

Princess Rose (Sarah Lamb) surrounded by nightmare visions of the Four Suitors

Princess Rose (Sarah Lamb) surrounded by nightmare visions of the Four Suitors - Photo: © Alice Pennefather

Act II

The Other Land

Escorted by the Fool (think Lilac Fairy), Princess Rose travels through a dreamlike world – a representation of her subconscious – where nightmares of the four Kings taunt her. They pursue her but she rejects them. Here she also finds her betrothed Salamander Prince, now exiled given his monstrous appearance. She follows him through a shifting maze, then falls exhausted.

The Fool blindfolds Rose and the Salamander Prince now seems to regain his human shape. Rose dances with him and when she removes her blindfold, she finds him in his reptile form. Seeing beyond his repulsive shape, she approaches him to comfort and console.


The Court

Princess Épine has crowned herself Empress and the four Kings now contend for her hand. The old Emperor is under her guard. Princess Rose returns after her journey and goes to her father’s aid, but Épine torments him. The Salamander Prince appears and pleads – like her father – for compassion. Rose kisses him and he regains his human shape.

Assisted by the Fool, the Prince now confronts each of the four Kings and Épine. He defeats the Kings in hand-to-hand combat and Épine flees the palace as the Emperor seizes the crown once more. The court is restored and wedding celebrations follow, with a series of divertissements and a final tableau where the Fool joins the hands of Princess Rose and the Prince.

Sarah Lamb's Princess Rose kisses the Salamander Prince

Princess Rose (Sarah Lamb) kisses the Salamander Prince - Photo: © Alice Pennefather



Benjamin Britten (b. 1913 in Lowestoft, Suffolk, d. 1976) is one of the most important British composers of the 20th century. As a young boy, he showed exceptional talent which he would later on prove with Peter Grimes (1945), the opera that propelled him to international stardom.

Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas (1957) was to be his only ballet score and also his largest orchestral piece. Commissioned by John Cranko and based on the choreographer’s libretto for the ballet, Britten’s main source of inspiration came from Balinese music, in particular Gamelan – traditional ensemble music which Britten had studied while visiting the island – and from Tchaikovsky’s grand ballets, particularly The Sleeping Beauty.

Sarah Lamb (Princess Rose) and Federico Bonelli (the Prince) in the Grand Pas de Deux

Sarah Lamb (Princess Rose) and Federico Bonelli (the Prince) in the Act III Grand Pas de Deux - Photo: © Alice Pennefather

Being new to the genre, it took Britten longer to write Pagodas than any other work in his life. He had spent a big part of his life writing for opera and thus filling music with words and now he found himself disconcerted with timings, often putting out double the amount of music that was needed. Using xylophones, cymbals, bamboo flutes and strings for the Salamander theme, the characteristic sound of the Gamelan was worked out to symbolise the magical pagodas in “Pagoda Land”.

In 1989 the full score was recorded and handed over to MacMillan for “tightening up”. In the Royal Ballet’s latest revival, Colin Matthews, director of the Britten-Pears Foundation has worked with Principal Ballet Notator Grant Coyle and Music Director Barry Wordsworth to cut the music and streamline the ballet, with full approval from the Britten estate.

For more on Britten’s distinctive score, read this comprehensive piece from Entartete Musik.

Sarah Lamb as Princess Rose and Federico Bonelli as the Salamander Prince

Sarah Lamb as Princess Rose and Federico Bonelli as the Salamander Prince - Photo: © Alice Pennefather


Original Choreography and Libretto: John Cranko
Music: Benjamin Britten
Designs: John Piper
Costumes: Desmond Heeley
Lighting: William Bundy
Premiere: 1 January 1957, Royal Opera House

Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan, Libretto: Colin Thubron after John Cranko
Music: Benjamin Britten
Designs and Costumes: Nicholas Georgiadis
Lighting: John B. Read
Original Cast: Darcey Bussell as Princess Rose, Fiona Chadwick as Princess Épine, Jonathan Cope as The Prince and Tetsuya Kumakawa as The Fool.
Premiere: 7 December 1989, Royal Opera House

Sources and Further Information

  1. Different Drummer.  The Life of Kenneth MacMillan by Jann Parry. Faber and Faber, 2009. ISBN-10: 0571243037
  2. A Pennyworth of Sorrow and Love by Neil Philip. The Prince of The Pagodas Programme Notes, 2011.
  3. A Great Ballet Waiting to Get Out by Margaret Stonborough. The Prince of The Pagodas Programme Notes, 2011.
  4. Wikipedia: The Prince of the Pagodas
  5. Wikipedia: Benjamin Britten
  6. Pas de Six from Prince of the Pagodas - Benjamin Britten by Jane Erb,, 1997.
  7. Britten’s Ugly Duckling by Gavin Plumley. Entartete Musik, June 2012.
  8. The Prince of The Pagodas: a Q&A with Jonathan Cope by Lottie Butler. Royal Opera House News, June 2011.
  9. Interviewing David Bintley, Japan’s National Ballet. Tokyo Weekender, March 2012.

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.


  • June 20, 2012


    Having seen the Prince of Pagodas, which I did not enjoy, I loved your article as it explained a lot of things I did not understand when I saw the performance. I still love MacMillan and yes maybe he did not had the freedom with the music as he would have liked. Still there is hope as BRB will have their own Prince in near future. But I might take my earplugs with me.

  • [...] MacMillan’s fairy tale homage to Petipa, Cranko, Ashton and De Valois, The Prince of the Pagodas, as captured by photographer Alice Pennefather during the current revival at the Royal Opera [...]

  • June 15, 2012


    Although I’ve heard of this ballet, I must admit I’ve never seen it. Thank-you for writing such an interesting article about it. You’ve made me want to see it! :)

  • June 15, 2012


    It really does seem that MacMillan wasn’t truly inspired to create this ballet…the pressure to do a ballet to a British composer, not having the rights to edit the score, difficulties in rewriting an already once failed plot–I just don’t see how MacMillan could have even wanted to finish it! Maybe it’s not surprising that it seems so unlike him because he didn’t really have any freedom with it. It’s one thing to push the boundaries of an artist a bit, but another to try and force inspired work.