I attended this show several weeks back and came away delighted. Review below.
On September 12 and 13, the long-running Dragon Quest ballet was given a renewed performance for 2009 by the Star Dancers Ballet troupe. I made it to Tokyo's Yuport Hall for the first day's performance, and were it not for scheduling conflicts I would have gladly paid another 6000 yen to see it again the next day. Even for someone with hardly any interest in ballet, it was a fantastic show.
Some may find the idea of a Dragon Quest ballet more amusing than exciting, but it's important to note that the music was performed live throughout by a full orchestra (the Tokyo New City Orchestra). Skeptics could just as well consider it a "Dragon Quest Best" orchestral concert, but with added visual elements from the ballet.
I never would have thought they could fit so many of my favorite Dragon Quest themes into a single performance (I have quite a few), but almost all of them were there. Since I didn't buy the program I don't have the exact cue list, but both the selections and their order were almost - if not exactly - the same as the Dragon Quest Legend soundtrack from the 1996 ballet. The theme selection covered all the bases - the peaceful prologues, the baroque string pieces, the jazzy town bits, the requiems and even the battle themes. These were mixed and matched to suit the narrative regardless of game chronology, and in some cases individual themes from the symphonic suite album medleys were used differently from their familiar order. Hearing well-known melodies followed by different ones than usual was a bit disorienting at first but also a large part of the fun.
The arrangements themselves were mostly identical to the symphonic suite versions, but hearing the Tokyo New City Orchestra perform them so closely to the London Philharmonic versions was a surprise and a delight. I'd thought I had tired of Dragon Quest's trademark "Overture" (when listening to the albums I usually skip it these days), but hearing it performed live at the beginning of the show made me giddy nonetheless. Some of my less favorite themes, like the baroque pieces and DQI's "Battle", were far more enjoyable than usual in the live setting, while classics like DQIV's character and town themes and DQV's "Violent Enemies" were as excellent as ever. Given the sheer number of themes present, most only appeared once - sometimes in abbreviated form - but a few were used as recurring motifs (notably the majestic "Colloseum", found in the "In a Town" medley in the symphonic suite albums). It's nice to see that somebody high up agrees with me about DQIII's "Fighting Spirit" and "Into the Legend" - I consider them the best battle and ending themes of the series, and hearing them and DQV's celebratory "Bridal Waltz" finish the show in a rousing live performance was more than a soundtrack fan could hope for.
The story (sans dialog, of course) was a fusion of Dragon Quest staples. It begins in a castle, where we are introduced to the princess (the female lead), the loyal retainer, the young adventurer (the male lead), and the king and queen. All seems well during a grand ballroom dance (perfectly suited to DQ's light string pieces), but soon the dour-looking dragon lord and his evil prince (the other male lead) abduct the princess. From here the adventure begins, with the loyal retainer and the adventurer going on separate quests to save her. Following a lively town scene the adventurer makes three comrades - a feisty female fighter (the other female lead), a mysterious sage, and the eccentric, attention-loving Torneko. (Torneko is obviously from DQIV, I think most of the other characters were based on DQIV as well.) On their journey they have a couple of creepy monster encounters as well as some all-out battles, leading up to the final showdown with the dragon lord and the evil prince.
I must say that visually, ballet was a much better match for an adventure series like Dragon Quest than I had expected. Some game music live productions make a big deal about the visual presentation of their shows; personally I was far more impressed by the more traditional but artistic presentation here. The ballroom dancing sequences were obviously a perfect fit for ballet, and accompanied by Sugiyama's classical compositions in the background, the movement of dozens of dancers in flowing formal attire about the brightly lit stage was mesmerizing. Even better was the town scene - the saucy behavior and swing-like dancing of the townspeople contrasted nicely with the more "proper" ballet elements, and the earth-toned costumes were straight out of an RPG.
The costumes that most impressed, though, were those for the monsters. Whoever designed those things has both the artistic sense and the slightly twisted streak of a genius. Monster encounters featured strange, scraggly blue and yellow creatures dashing about the stage, with loose bits of cloth flowing about like appendages, while a carnivorous demonic thing bandied about deviously. (The whole body of the costume was literally a huge, gaping mouth, with little arms and legs projecting out of it.)
The one area that didn't fare so well in ballet form was the duels. Fights tended to consist of slow, deliberate sword strokes, followed by either the dragon king or the evil prince sending the adventurer sprawling to the ground with an annoyed sweep of the hand. (The aftermath typically involved the adventurer sulking in a heap on the floor, making him the least interesting character of the show.) Of course this is ballet and not Chinese opera, so as interesting as it could have been to see characters leaping about acrobatically on stage for battles, the costumes and choreography in the other scenes and the fantastic music throughout more than compensated.
For a game music orchestral concert, I'm not sure there's a single series that taken as a whole can top Dragon Quest. As with the Final Fantasy VI concert weeks before, hearing many of my favorite selections live and orchestral - especially classics like "Unknown World", "Fighting Spirit" and "Into the Legend" - was a dream come true, and despite my own lack of interest in ballet, the costumes and performances were sweet icing on the cake. It's hard to say when the next round of Dragon Quest ballet performances might come about (possibly not until the next major game release), but any soundtrack fan around Tokyo at the time should absolutely take the opportunity to experience it.