National Ballet of Canada
Le Petit Prince
Toronto, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
11 June 2016
It’s a daunting task to bring a literary classic onto the ballet stage, to develop plot and characterization through the wordless language of dance, and to translate literary intricacy and resonance in movements. The task is even more daunting if the classic in question concerns a little boy from a distant asteroid who finds himself on Earth, in a desert, where he meets a crashed pilot and asks him to draw a sheep. The National Ballet of Canada, however, has done just that. In June, the Toronto-based company unveiled its brand new production of Le Petit Prince, a ballet based on the famous book by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Since its publication nearly 75 years ago, de Saint-Exupéry’s “Le Petit Prince,” a short illustrated novella about an improbable encounter between an aviator and a young space traveler, has captivated the hearts of millions of children and adults alike, becoming one of the world’s most beloved books and a mega-selling classic. On the surface, “Le Petit Prince” is a children’s story about friendship; yet deep down it is a melancholy and humorous rumination on human nature, love, childhood and life itself. Episodic in structure, it unfolds as a series of miniature fables, each more fascinating than the other.
The new ballet has been nearly four years in the making, its hefty bill covered by a $2-million private donation, the largest monetary gift for a new work in the National Ballet of Canada’s history. This highly-anticipated and much-advertised production features choreography by the company’s principal dancer Guillaume Côté, a brand new commissioned score by Kevin Lau and stage designs and costumes by Michael Levine.
I was able to catch the performance of Le Petit Prince at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and am happy to report that the new production, even if not perfect, offers plenty to enjoy: from the clever stage decorations, attractive costumes and impressive visual effects to inspired dancing by the company’s incredibly gifted and committed cast.
To give the story of the Little Prince a fitting frame, Michael Levine, a maverick of stagecraft, conjured whimsical décor which propelled the action and aptly echoed the atmosphere of the events onstage. In the beginning, the claustrophobic set looked like a huge black box, evoking the lonely feel and blank uniformity of the desert. As the plot moved forward, with the Little Prince embarking on his interstellar adventures, the stage turned into a fantastical galaxy of stars and asteroids. The evocative lighting designs by David Finn added greatly to the striking visual effect of the staging.
The music was by 34-year-old Kevin Lau, one of Canada’s leading young composers, who had never written for ballet before. Replete with powerful brass and lyrical violin solos, his tuneful score gave the entire production a potent musical underpinning.
In creating this ballet, Côté had all the right ideas and intentions; he clearly loved and understood the material he was working with. Yet, watching this ballet, I felt as if he was too careful, even guarded, in developing the story and its characters, as if he never really allowed his imagination take flight. That’s what his choreography (and the whole production for that matter) was missing – an unrestrained sense of ingenuity and freedom.
The choreographer and his team opted not to take any risks while creating the ballet’s scenario, sticking to the original structure of the book. The show was thus primarily a procession of divertissements of eccentric characters which the Little Prince met as he traveled from one asteroid to the next. And while this was an important part of the plot, I wanted more attention given to the relationship between the aviator and the young boy. I didn’t think that in this staging their emotional connection was fully established and realized; and without their genuine bond, the entire story loses its dramatic gravity and meaning.
Still, what really made this production so watchable and enjoyable was the uniformly excellent dancing of the entire cast. Throughout the evening, the dancers delivered a passionate and enthusiastic performance, making the essential visible to the eye.
As the title hero, Dylan Tedaldi threw himself into the role with unconditional abandon and youthful zest, bringing to the forefront his character’s innocence, curiosity and earnestness. Dancing with effortless technique, Tanya Howard was exquisite as the fragile and egoistic Rose, her duets with the Little Prince and the Aviator aptly capturing her heroine’s fickle nature: now capricious and needy, now warm and affectionate. The charismatic Harrison James was a picture-perfect Aviator, who could be perceived as de Saint-Exupéry himself. Dressed in a fringed sexy red costume, Jurgita Dronina made for a glamorous-looking Fox; and the supple Nan Yu looked utterly effective in the role of the Snake.
Last but not least, the orchestra, under the baton of David Briskin, music director and principal conductor of the National Ballet of Canada, did an admirable job, rendering the music with a perfect mix of dramatic force and poetic sentiment.