"Le Petit Prince"
The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
June 4, 2016
By Denise Sum
copyright © 2016 by Denise Sum
The classic French novella "Le Petit Prince" makes interesting material for a new ballet, with plenty of imagination, fantasy, and philosophical explorations. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's well-loved tale is multifaceted, with critical observations and profound truths abound behind the seemingly simple fable. The challenge, of course, lies in how to faithfully transfer the ideas of "Le Petit Prince" into movement. Principal dancer and choreographic associate Guillaume Côté undertook his biggest and most ambitious project to date with this ballet, his first full-length work. It follows on the heels of his abstract one act piece "Being and Nothingness", based on the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, which the company premiered a year ago. He has collaborated with prominent Canadian set and costume designer Michael Levine, not only on the designs, but also on the "Creative Concept" as the program credits states. "Le Petit Prince" also features an original score by Kevin Lau, lighting by David Finn, and video design by Finn Ross. Unfortunately, despite a talented team and a $2 million budget, "Le Petit Prince" felt gimmicky and largely fell short in conveying the timeless magic and poetry of Saint-Exupéry's story.
Dylan Tedaldi in "Le Petit Prince". Photo © Karolina Kuras.
"Le Petit Prince" is broken into two acts. The first, introduces the narrator, the Aviator, often thought to represent Saint-Exupéry himself. He tells a story of crashing his plane in the desert and encountering a curious boy, the Little Prince.The Little Prince explains that his home is a tiny asteroid. He tells of his love and devotion to a fickle and demanding Rose. Sensing the imbalance in their relationship, the Little Prince set off to explore other planets on his own. What follows is a series of vignettes wherein the Little Prince visits different planets and meets their doomed and unhappy inhabitants. The planets illustrate various human foibles, among them greed, vanity, and addiction. In the book, each planet is home to a lone human, perhaps a commentary on the isolation that comes from selfishness -- a trait that all these characters share. For example, one planet is home to a "King" who flaunts his "absolute" power, but has no subjects. In order to create roles for the corps de ballet, in this ballet the main character of each planet is not alone, and has an entourage. It does provide more dancing roles, but also changes the meaning of each encounter. As the audience follows along on the Little Prince's visits to different planets, the character's role is actually projected in text on the backdrop (e.g. "The Vain Woman", "The Drunk"). It does speak volumes that the creators are not confident that the identities are made clear enough through design or choreography.The role of the wild birds, mentioned in passing in the book, has also been expanded to fill the stage. The birds carry the Little Prince from one planet to another.
This act is the more problematic of the two, as there is very little sustained dancing. The plot is episodic. Characters enter and exit the stage so quickly that there is little time for phrasing or development in the choreography. In trying to avoid a direct or literal adaptation of the book, recognizable sketches of the story are there, but without any of the soul or metaphorical significance. In the opening scene, the Aviator recalls a childhood memory of drawing a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. The classic drawing by Saint-Exupéry is shown through a video projection. However, rather than continuing to illustrate the significance of the drawing, it stops there. There is no way for the audience to understand how the image looks like a hat if the elephant is not drawn in, and how through this, the Aviator realizes how differently children and adults can look at an identical image. There are many examples of similar missed opportunities throughout the ballet.
The second act fares a little better. In it, the Little Prince finds himself on Earth, where he encounters a Snake, a Fox, and a garden of roses. Here, the parallels between the Little Prince's journey and the Aviator's predicament are made clear. They are both dressed in similar white costumes to make their kinship obvious. This act is less choppy than the first, but again, the narrative is lost and what is left is a vague depiction of the Little Prince talking to animals with little context. The exchange between the Little Prince and the Fox, where the Fox describes the nature of love and the concept of being tamed by a companion, is difficult to communicate without words. What was more effective was the scene in the rose garden, where the Little Prince experiences sadness upon realizing his Rose is not as unique as he once thought. Of course, like Siegfried finding Odette among the swans, the Little Prince quickly recognizes his beloved Rose amidst the others in the garden. She is his rose and is special to him because of their relationship. There is more dancing in this act, including a pas de deux for the Little Prince and the Rose, the Little Prince and the Aviator, and the Little Prince and the Fox.
Levine's designs for this ballet are often inventive and striking. The set consists of several circles of different sizes that are manipulated, re-arranged, and change color throughout the ballet to create a myriad of visual effects. In the first act, a giant model of a paper airplane cuts across the stage as a creative way to show the Aviator's plane crash. In one scene, the Little Prince appears to float atop a chair revolving in space. Video projections and text, however, can feel lazy when overused or employed as a stand-in for expressing ideas through movement. Costumes for the various inhabitants of faraway planets are elaborate. Vanity is depicted by a group of dancers in tutus covered in a mosaic of broken mirrors. The Rose, however, wears a simple ombré slip with pale pink fading to green. There are no petals or floral references, but her role is clear. Unfortunately, the massive wings of the wild birds, while beautiful, seemed impractical and limiting in terms of turns and jumps.
As for the score, the music was varied and unfocused, mirroring the scattered structure of Act I. There were moments in which the music sounded majestic and cinematic, but others that were contrived or overwrought. Chimes or bells were a stand-in for enchantment or mystery, cymbals marked a climax, and scenes that were supposed to be emotionally moving were accompanied by a maudlin recording of children singing "ahhh..."
The choreography was remarkably unremarkable with few memorable sequences. The dance vocabulary used was classically influenced with more naturalistic steps for the Little Prince, who is on stage almost throughout. The Little Prince was danced by the brilliant Dylan Tedaldi, who has a beautifully articulate movement quality and believable child-like sense of wonder in this role. As the Rose, Tanya Howard was cool and aloof, vainly tossing her long hair. The Aviator was danced by Harrison James, who is a strong dancer, but did not have much opportunity to develop his character in his limited solos.
"Le Petit Prince" reflects a somewhat troubling trend towards new full-length ballets that feature well-known, familiar narratives with stylish designs and special effects, but hollow choreography and a lack of substance. Still, every performance of "Le Petit Prince" was sold out, so perhaps the NBoC is responding to a demand. Time will tell whether this production will stand the test of time or if it will be looked back on as an expensive experiment once the novelty wears off.