Noticeable excitement hums within the walls of the Four Seasons Centre on opening night as audience members settle into their seats before a giant, projected paper scrawled with the name of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s tiniest hero. The wildly anticipated Le Petit Prince, the first full-length ballet by The National Ballet of Canada’s renowned principal dancer Guillaume Côté finally premieres with an original, newly commissioned score by Toronto-based composer Kevin Lau, and a technologically enhanced set by Michael Levine.
Someone in the audience whispers about witnessing history.
From the moment the curtain rises, the ballet aims to dazzle. A massive hand swoops down, wipes the paper and replaces it with a fresh one. It’s presumably the hand of the Aviator, performed exceptionally by First Soloist Harrison James; he sits behind the screen frustrated by his lack of creativity. The giant hand begins to sketch a hat, but little by little, the drawing reveals an elephant inside a boa constrictor. With a delighted giggle, we are transported into the world of imagination and possibility.
Côté’s choreography, a blend of contemporary lyricism and clean classical lines, effectively draws the audience into an extraterrestrial world. First Soloist Dylan Tedaldi (the Little Prince) masterfully manipulates each fibre of music as he demonstrates his admiration for his Rose, deftly interpreted by First Soloist Tanya Howard. The sweet themes of the violin and twinkling piano at first reflect the raw beauty signified by the Rose’s wild, loose hair. But as the Rose bourrées toward the Little Prince only to push him away, it seems even the purest love can be thorny.
Act 1 features a series of vignettes recounting all the characters the Little Prince has met on his journey before landing on Earth. Here all the dancers represent archetypal personalities that expose the unflattering (yet amusing) side of adulthood. Caught in the midst of a circus-like atmosphere, the Little Prince meets the King, who frantically chases after a floating crown; the Businessman, who rigidly and loudly commands his workers by leading them in an impressively pompous bucket-drumming show; and the nervous, excitable Lamplighters. Then we meet more subdued characters like the pitiful Drunk who stumbles in pursuit of glowing drinks that sail through midair just out of his reach, and the old, bearded Geographer who tries to convince the Little Prince of a world he has never experienced.
Of all the caricatures, the Vain Woman, delicately danced by Alexandra MacDonald, evokes the most reflection – literally. Dressed in the only classical tutus seen in the entire ballet, which drip with shards of mirror, a corps de ballet of identical dancers joins the Vain Woman and represent her fragmented sense of self. As the music swells to match her escalating ego, the Vain Woman proudly looks back at her kaleidoscope of personalities and, obsessed with her own beauty, ignores the Little Prince altogether. Rejected, the sequence ends with the Little Prince gazing into the fun-house mirrors that line the back wall, prompting the question “who are you?”
Contrasting the lightheartedness of Act 1, Act II is more sinister and perhaps the more dangerous woman appears, in the form of a deadly Snake seductively performed by Principal Dancer Xiao Nan Yu. The climactic entrance of the Snake begins with her enormous shadow flirting against the backdrop of a large blood moon, a testament of things to come. The play of light and darkness brilliantly demonstrates Cote’s commitment to storytelling, as Nan Yu’s shadow contorts and slithers, proving both mesmerizing and menacing. When the Snake materializes, she shimmers in gold trailed by a dark corps de ballet that lengthens her body. And thus, the epic battle of wills wages as the Aviator views the Snake as a threat to his creativity and life, while the Little Prince sees her as a means to reunite with his Rose.
Persuaded in part by his encounter with the Fox, performed by Principal Dancer Sonia Rodriguez, the Little Prince accepts the Snake’s bite and chooses to return to his planet and his beloved Rose. However, the tender pas de deux between he and the Aviator drives the most emotion. Typically reserved for a female lead and her love interest in narrative ballet, the intimate partnership between James and Tedaldi proves equally magnetic as the Aviator clutches his heart when the Little Prince points with longing at his planet. Urgently, they soar in a series of jumps and turns across the stage ending with the Aviator dragging the Little Prince across the floor in attempt to get him to stay. The dancers move in unison, suggesting that the Little Prince embodies the Aviator’s past, a memory of the child he once was, too precious to let go.
After the Little Prince shudders from the Snake’s bite, the Aviator dances a moving solo of escalating passion. There seems to be an intentional vigour in his movement as he takes on the wild, carefree movements of the Little Prince. Slicing the air with a manège of grande jetes en tournant (rapid turns into split jumps around the periphery of the stage) the Aviator restores his vivacity. He then invites the audience to embrace enchantment and life by creating his first successful paper airplane, breaking the fourth wall and tossing it directly into the audience.
While only the test of time will determine Côté’s true success with Le Petit Prince, without a doubt it serves a feast to the senses with a universal message. Its balance of spectacular choreography and soul-driven music complemented by the innovative set supports a new kind of storytelling in ballet that appeals to a broad audience.
The National Ballet of Canada performs Le Petit Prince from June 4th through 12th at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto.