Friday, June 10, 2016

Crash Landing: Le Petit Prince at the National Ballet of Canada

Dylan Tedaldi in National Ballet of Canada's Le Petit Prince. (Photo by Karolina Kuras)

Le Petit Prince, Guillaume Côtè's ambitious retelling of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic children's story of a planet-hopping boy on a quest for truth, takes a wrong turn by over-complicating what in essence is a poetic tale simply told. The two-hour long ballet, whose highly anticipated world premiere took place at Toronto's Four Seasons for the Performance Arts last Saturday night, is fussily over-choreographed in places, resulting in a blurred focus. What does Côtê want to say about Le Petit Prince? After two hours of watching the ballet unfold against Michael Levine's cosmic set design and Kevin Lau's lushly descriptive original score, this remains the million dollar question. Correction. The two-million-dollar question.

This is what Côté had to play with in creating his first full-length ballet, a work that falters after promising to fly. The bulk of the budget was donated by patron Allan Slaight and his partner Emmanuelle Gattuso, the latter a long-time supporter who took to the stage to present the principal dancer-turned-choreographer with a bouquet following the opening night performance. In pre-performance interviews, the company said it had invested heavily in Le Petit Prince, spending lavishly on a marketing campaign that includes banners on city lampposts and promo videos taking viewers behind the scenes of the creative process, in hopes of spawning a blockbuster that, much like Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, would draw families in to buy more tickets. But this likely won't happen. The ballet just doesn't live up to its hype.

Far from appealing to children it aims above them not at them Le Petit Prince barely resonates with adults who are left wondering what it's all about. On one hand, Côté has created an almost literal translation of the de Saint-Exupêry book, faithfully reproducing its parade of fantastical characters and introducing them by name with a script scrawled on a rear scrim.

One by one, we see the Rose in all her haughtiness, the Businessman being busy, the King lording it over everybody, the Vain Woman vainly preening in her mirrored skirt and the Drunk clownishly inebriated. There is the Prince, too, of course, but paired with the Aviator, a stand-in for de Saint-Exupéry who in real life was a French war pilot whose experiences in the Sahara inspired his writing. In the ballet, the poet and his Prince dance together in duets that appear metaphorically to explore the relationship between the creator and his creation. There is tension between them, instigated by the Aviator, a confusing character in the ballet who oscillates between encouragement and denial of the visions dancing before his eyes.

Dylan Tedaldi and Sonia Rodriguez in Le Petit Prince. (Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic)

As much as the Prince dominates the story, the Aviator is the ballet's catalyst of change. In the opening scene, he sits behind a desk putting pen to paper, drawing a facsimile of what is in the original book an elephant inside a snake. The Aviator then folds that paper into an airplane that he shoots out into the space separating the audience from the illusion on stage, inviting the imagination to take flight. Illuminated by David Finn’s orbital lighting design and pushed forward by Finn Ross’ rhythmic video imagery, it looks to be a thrilling ride.

Côté presents a fast-paced compendium of dance images inspired by the book. His choreographed sequences bring to life characters on the printed page but without exploring them in depth. The danced portraits are disappointingly superficial: comic book characters in search of a theme. Yet, Côté manages to hold his audience's attention with a movement vocabulary that is ever shifting and exploratory. Presented on stage is a seamless synthesis of classical ballet and contemporary dance accented with heavily borrowed movement phrases from John Neumeier (Nijinsky) and James Kudelka (The Four Seasons), choreographers exerting perhaps too strong an influence on Côté's own ballet. Despite the sense of déjà vu, the episodic scenes are visually exciting. But they are also pointless, laying to waste any sense of thrill. The series of events don't connect through cause and effect, making the ballet, as a whole, feel random and recklessly extravagant. Where were Côté 's outside eyes, and why was no one advising him to hone his focus? The feeling is that the score was too long for him to fill with new ideas and the scenery too front-and-centre for the dance to assert itself as a primary work of art.

You keep hoping the Aviator’s paper airplane would do more than a few aerial somersaults in the air. You want it to crash and burn holes through the narrative in ways in an illuminating way. But no. The ballet’s concatenation of self-contained choreographies ultimately doesn’t add up to a bigger picture. Maybe accounting for the lack of an organizing principle is that Le Petit Prince is essentially a children’s book, and when translated into ballet was not approached from the point of view of a child. Neither was it crafted to appeal to the child within. This mostly black-on-black work, a ballet noir in the literal sense of the word, is littered with menacing crows ferociously beating their wings, forbidding intimacy. The ballet’s schizophrenic structure is itself alienating. Act one is a literal-minded picture book; act two is tinged with madness and images that by contrast are impressionistic. Like Levine’s massive set of planetary shapes and hard reflective surfaces, Le Petit Prince exists in a world of intergalactic coldness.

Still, brilliant dancing shines through the nebulous choreography, making the ballet not entirely a waste of time and resources. Côté deserves credit for foregrounding in Le Petit Prince dancers on whom the spotlight less often is cast. Dylan Tedaldi, a dancer usually confined to supporting roles infull-length ballets, here takes the role of the Prince (Skylar Campbell and Félix Paquet perform it on alternate dates), turning it into a tour de force performance. The role showcases the soloist’s technical versatility and dramatic, giving this hugely underrated dancer the chance to be a star. His fresh, buoyant and, in places, acrobatic dancing captures the innocence and juvenile awkwardness of the literary character, reminding why the little hero of de Saint-Exupéry’s story has had such a big impact on those who’ve come to know him through the book. His positive attitude would change the world.

Tanya Howard and Dylan Tedaldi in Le Petit Prince. (Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic)

Harrison James (alternating with Piotr Stanczyk and McGee Maddox) dances the role of the Aviator and leaps repeatedly, and with velocity, into the void, lending it a palpable sense of presence. Sonia Rodriguez (alternating with Rui Huang and Jurgita Dronina) is impressive performance as the red-coated fox, delivering a performance brimming with sinewy, seductive energy and holding all eyes riveted. Tanya Howard (alternating with Heather Ogden and Kathryn Hosier) is remarkable as the Rose, floating from start to finish. An enchantingly lyrical dancer, Howard wafts across the stage like a delicately scented and potently suggestive perfume evoking desire. How lovely she looks, dancing so strong.

Also outstanding is principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu as the snake, a role seen only in act two. Côté is here at his subtle, choreography movement passages that are not predictably sibilant or slithering, but rather stately, queenly, and even esoteric. The snake comes across as a creature representing harmony and balance and ancient ideas of birth and rebirth as observed in most mythologies where the serpent plays a central role. Yu, a dancer in full command of her artistry, brings to the surface the role’s underlying spiritual qualities in a performance that truly is awe-inspiring. (Tina Pereira and Svetlana Lunkina command the role on alternate nights.)

But even with dancing as fine as this, Le Petit Prince does not satisfy. The incoherent choreography fails to strike an emotional connection. It’s a collection of details that doesn’t produce a story. There’s no discernible pattern, no apparent logic, behind taking the little prince and making him loom large on the stage. De Saint-Exupéry wrote a story denouncing pretentiousness in human relationships. Côté’s ballet goes in an opposite direction by turning a portrait of naiveté into an enormous, and expensive, enterprise that can’t explain its raison d’être. Why should we care about Le Petit Prince? The answer, like this production, is lost in space.

 Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.   

No comments:

Post a Comment