When I was a kid, I used to go by myself into the woods across from my house and spend whole days out there, inventing stories of which I was the hero. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book Le Petit Prince is imbued with that same lonely magic, which makes the world stranger, better and simpler than it is, and oneself the ruler of an imagined universe. It’s a kind of magic that children are best at creating, and that adults often long to recover, which is why there are so many adaptations of this beautiful book in many different mediums. Not least of them is Guillaume Côté’s much-anticipated incarnation for The National Ballet of Canada.
The problem with this special magic — the kind that we all remember from childhood, and that carries the Little Prince from his tiny meteor to visit a sad Aviator dying of thirst in the desert — is that it only really works when you are alone. Saint-Exupéry’s writing is heavy with loneliness, as he unravels the confusing dilemma of compromising one’s solitary sphere of happiness for the sake of connection with others. This is the problem that propels the Little Prince on his journey: he’s no longer alone. His little island in space has produced a rose, which he loves, but can’t really tolerate. “I’m having trouble with a flower,” he tells the Aviator.
Because it is traditionally a narrative art form, ballet has often depended on children’s stories and fairytales for its source material. Dance doesn’t submit easily to didactic statements, which makes it very hard to tell complex stories. And so ballet has consistently needed simple tales and archetypical characters in order to carry the action along an arc. In this, Le Petit Prince is both a perfect and a problematic choice. Perfect because the story is already furnished with all the necessary components for a conventional ballet, and problematic because Le Petit Prince is actually a dark and confusing book.
Côté’s Le Petit Prince opens on the latter note, with the aviator sitting under a spotlight behind a screen, working at a writing desk. Projected on the screen is his drawing of a snake that has swallowed an elephant, which, to unseeing adults, looks like a hat. This is Saint-Exupéry’s ingenious device for suggesting the veiled existential threat that lurks throughout this story, which designer Michael Levine has faithfully recreated to set the stage for all that is to come: it’s an ominous bit of foreshadowing disguised as a charming visual trick, but it’s also an indicator that we are in the hands of a dutiful and tasteful reproduction. (After the nihilism-inducing pageantry of last year’s Alice in Wonderland, that comes as a bit of a relief.)
Very quickly, the Aviator is disturbed from his reverie by the corps, a threatening crowd of crows in sparkling black costumes and magnificent long wings. The inspiration comes from the birds that carry the Little Prince from his home in space to see his neighbours and at last to earth, where he finds the Aviator in dire straits. The relationship between the Little Prince and the Aviator is one of many devices in this performance that serve to highlight Côté’s choreographic range. On the one hand, the Aviator’s movements are full of tension — not stiff, exactly, but elegantly strained. (He is, after all, a gentleman on the verge of cracking up.) The Little Prince offers a counterpoint. He’s boyishly graceful, rippling through his movements like water swirling in a glass. The contrast is heightened by a pas de deux in which they perform the same phrases side-by-side, the human falling to earth and the magical prince landing buoyantly down beside him.
The first act tells the backstory of the Prince’s travels before arriving on earth. A Rose appears, her long straight hair hanging around her face. It’s the perfect prop for a character whose emotional range extends from mopey self-involvement to haughty self-righteousness. Côté invites the dancer to whip it around dramatically in the latter case, and then to let it droop tragically in the former, while the Little Prince chases after her in bewilderment. Readers and viewers may identify some pretty flagrant sexism in Saint-Exupérey’s conjuring of the feminine principle as an impossible-to-please woman. Nevertheless, Côté’s choreography vividly expresses their co-dependent drama, to which most people in the audience can surely relate, if only from recollection of first loves.
Needing a break from his flower problem, the Prince decides to take a little trip by himself. The crows carry him to nearby stars, where he meets a King, a Businessman, a Vain Woman (note: it was a Vain Man in the book), a Drunkard, two Lamplighters and a Geographer. This series syncs with the standard trope in ballets where the choreographer demonstrates versatility and expansiveness by trying out a variety of dances, usually with an international flavour: the guests at the ball in Swan Lake, the succession of enemies in Don Quixote, the treats and snacks in The Nutcracker. Although the rubric is classical, Côté’s choreography in these sequences is quite contemporary, like the Businessman and his troupe of identically dressed colleagues all banging on drums, and even in some cases cuttingly self-referential, as with the Vain Woman, who is danced by a gang of ballerinas with their tutus all covered in tiny mirrors.
In the second act, the Little Prince must finally confront his loneliness directly, in the character of the Fox, who teaches him the difference between being wild or tame, and the Snake, who offers to send him home to his flower by means of death. The Fox, played by Sonia Rodriguez on the night I attended, is both the best character in the book, and given the best choreography in the ballet. Or maybe Rodriguez was just that good. At its worst, ballet is the overpriced gluten-free white bread of physical storytelling. At its best, you don’t think such thoughts, because your mind has shut up. Rodriguez stole the show by interpreting the choreography not only with her customary athleticism and control, but with a supple, seductive charm that perfectly expressed wildness that wants to be tamed.
If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read the next sentence: the Little Prince dies. (Don’t worry, the ending of the ballet will make you go “aww.”) The Snake, danced with intimidating power by Xiao Nan Yu on June 4, puts the Little Prince to sleep. In the book, it is even more heart-rending: “There was nothing but a flash of yellow close to his ankle.” And so the Little Prince returned to his Rose. Wildness wanders, but love comes home. In this new work, Côté expressed his desire to go home as well, to the roots of classical ballet: purity, sacrifice, beauty. Whether those are the attributes that the Little Prince was meant to express is up for debate, but no doubt ballet lovers will be more than happy with Côté’s interpretation.