The National Ballet of Canada’s world premiere of Le Petit Prince had all the makings of a royal feast, but the balance was off. At the centre of the project is Guillaume Côté, the company’s beloved Prince Charming principal dancer and internet sensation, with his first full-length ballet as a choreographer. An injury in 2014 took him off the stage and many speculated that Côté’s rising career could transition from star dancer to star choreographer. Setting a story that brings a nostalgic smile to the face of everyone who’s read it seemed like an easy win. Needless to say, when the curtain rose on Saturday night, expectations were high.
If it’s been a while since you’ve read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 classic: An Aviator crashes his plane somewhere in the Sahara, and before long comes across a strange little character named the Little Prince. The otherworldly figure had left his own planet after a row with his beloved yet conceited Rose, and he shares the story of the six characters he’s met while traveling the galaxy. Finally, the Little Prince travels to earth where he meets a wise Fox, who teaches him to value relationships, and a Snake who ends his life, sending him back to his beloved Rose.
Those expecting a literal interpretation of the charming children’s story will be surprised. Instead, Côté elevates the tale to something more profound by distilling the characters to their most raw psychological form. His choreography embodies a darkness that isn’t present in the cheerful sketches of Saint-Exupéry’s novella.
For example, the Rose is performed powerfully by first soloist Tanya Howard with her waist-length hair let loose, and a long, flowing costume resembling a simple white petal rather than an entire flower. The role intensifies from the sweet and flirty Rose of the novel, becoming much more sensual and seductive. Howard’s movement, like much of the dancing here, has a strong classical influence in the quick and delicate footwork, but uses evocative and angular gestures from the waist up to enhance the storytelling.
Dylan Tedaldi (the Little Prince) and Harrison James (the Aviator), dressed simply in loose-fitting whites, have challenging roles that keep each on stage for the majority of the production. The pair demonstrate the novellas’s theme of logic versus imagination using Côté’s trademark hand and arm gestures. Tedaldi portrays a Little Prince who is surprisingly stoic compared to the boy-like character in the novella, though he maintains the sense of wonder by examining each character with outstretched arms and chin in the air. Meanwhile, James’ finest moments come at the death of the Little Prince. His grief is strongly felt as he clenches his fists and crumples to the stage with the crescent moon behind him and swelling score beneath him.
From the pit comes ninety minutes of powerful original music by Toronto composer Kevin Lau. To introduce each character, he weaves through different musical styles, at times evoking the rich tonality of Sergei Prokofiev, pastorale woodwind themes of Aaron Copland, brassy celebrations à la John Williams, and moments that can only be described as distinctly Lau. He uses cinematic textures and dramatic bursts of energy like a fine film composer, yet employs returning thematic narrative elements like in the great ballet scores of the past. Solo piano plays a prominent role throughout, as does reverb-soaked wordless voice.
But the set holds this production back. Michael Levine’s all-black backdrop with 50 or so circular cutouts of varying sizes feels a bit like being trapped inside a block of Swiss cheese. The textured black polyester material was meant to twinkle like faraway stars in the galaxy, but instead looked more like it had been left out in the sun for too long. The individual sheets of rectangular material were too clearly visible from the back of the hall.
Le Petit Prince has all the right ingredients – star choreographer, strong original score, string of glowing publicity, solid philanthropic support, a charming story, and even a gold sequined bodysuit – and the result was a triumph in vision for Côté, though too heavy on the set. It will no doubt return to The National Ballet stage, and with some careful modulating, it could become a new Canadian masterpiece.
The National Ballet of Canada performs Le Petit Prince from June 4th through 12th at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto. The Lau/Côté partnership continues with a one-act ballet commission premiering at the National Arts Centre in 2017.