A princely premiere

BalletX presents Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s ‘The Little Prince’

5 minute read
Can this story become a ballet? Roderick Phifer (leaping) and other ensemble members of ‘Little Prince.’ (Photo by Vikki Sloviter.)
Can this story become a ballet? Roderick Phifer (leaping) and other ensemble members of ‘Little Prince.’ (Photo by Vikki Sloviter.)

The BalletX Summer Series is the world premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 The Little Prince. It’s the first full-length ballet for the returning choreographer, and was my first time seeing the company perform a full-length work. Lopez Ochoa’s vision and the dancers’ captivating performances combined with innovative set design and Peter Salem’s original score make me eager for more full-length works from both this choreographer and BalletX’s stellar company.

Some of dance’s most famous full-length works are adapted story ballets, such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker, that holiday blockbuster which serves as many viewers’ introduction to dance. But The Little Prince is stranger and darker than those fairy tales. As Lopez Ochoa explains in the program notes, The Little Prince is a complex allegory in the guise of a children’s book. It’s less Goodnight, Moon and more Animal Farm, with a French sensibility. A plane-crash survivor meets a mysterious little boy full of strange tales who claims to hail from an asteroid. Could BalletX pull this off?

The answer is yes. Little Prince purists may not agree, and the symbolism-heavy tale does not lend itself well to a story ballet, but Lopez Ochoa and BalletX have created something entertaining to watch and beautiful to behold.

The Snake and the Pilot

This version of The Little Prince develops Saint-Exupéry’s character of the Snake into a central figure. Representing death, this Snake also seems to control life. Commandingly danced by Stanley Glover in a shimmering, full-length bodysuit and bowler hat, the Snake makes things happen with a tip of his cane. Glover’s slinky movements seem truly serpentine, at times channeling Michael Jackson.

Sound effects and a scattering of plane parts signal the crash landing. The Snake brings the Pilot (Zachary Kapeluck) back to life, manipulating him like a puppet. The appearance of the Little Prince (Roderick Phifer) abruptly changes the mood with lively movement and fanciful music. Next, we meet the Prince’s beloved and coy Rose, breathtakingly performed en pointe by Francesca Forcella in a sultry red costume with flesh-colored, red-tipped gloves to signify her thorns.

Allegories of adulthood

After introducing the key figures, the first act takes the audience on adventures not unlike Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole, where strange characters appear and logic does not apply. Yet each of the characters here represents concepts that reflect existential themes. The King (Blake Krapels) loves to command but has no subjects. The Narcissist (Skyler Lubin), wearing a top hat and tunic covered with mirror shards, clamors for applause. The Drunk (Richard Villaverede) cannot see beyond his bottles, while the Businesswoman (Chloe Perkes) has eyes only for the contents of her briefcase. The Lamplighter (Andrea Yorita) is consumed by duty. The Geographer (Caili Quan) studies the globe but never leaves home. These archetypes capture many of the follies and preoccupations of adult life. Physical comedy and great dancing, especially by Yorita, leaven the lesson for those who care to look at it.

A commanding Snake: Stanley Glover in BalletX’s ‘Little Prince.’ (Photo by Vikki Sloviter.)
A commanding Snake: Stanley Glover in BalletX’s ‘Little Prince.’ (Photo by Vikki Sloviter.)

Better we should emulate the Little Prince’s curiosity, joy, and innocence, but he too has a lesson to learn. The Geographer challenges the Prince’s belief that his Rose is unique and special, recommending he visit Earth to see for himself. The second act finds the Little Prince bereft upon discovering rows of rose bushes. Luckily, a fun, sassy, hip-swaying Fox (Richard Villaverde in a driving cap with white ears) helps him see things differently. A sequence in which the Fox teaches the Prince and the Pilot a new dance effectively portrays the perspective change.

Ultimately, the Fox blindfolds the Prince, who easily finds his own Rose amid a sea of blooms without the aid of sight. This is because the heart sees what the eyes cannot, and the Prince’s love is what makes his Rose special. Blindfolded, Phifer impressively performs a duet with Forcella that echoes their dance in the first act, full of seamless lifts and constant movement paralleling the momentum of emotion.

Death and love

Meanwhile, time is running out for the Pilot and his dwindling supply of water. The Snake leads him to a well, at a price: he carries away the Little Prince. During an impromptu post-intermission Q&A with Lopez Ochoa and artistic director Christine Cox, the choreographer explained that in creating the dance she finally understood the Prince’s disappearance: his death is illusory, because he was a figment of the Pilot’s fevered imagination. This unplanned discussion occurred during an unexpected delay caused by a technical problem, but it was so entertaining and enlightening that BalletX should consider offering regular discussions with the members of the creative team.

The Pilot may have imagined the Little Prince, but his impact is as lasting as the star he becomes. Lopez Ochoa’s adaptation of The Little Prince shines in depicting the symbolic meaning of the well-known story, bolstered by a strong company and standout performances from Glover, Forcella, and Kapeluck, who remained motionless on stage during the long technical delay. Deceptively spare, the set designed by Matt Saunders and Petra Floyd transforms into distinct settings with the help of props and Michael Korsch’s lighting. Salem’s score, which he performs live onstage, establishes a series of soundscapes, particularly in the first act. I enjoyed a brief comic interaction between Salem and the Snake, whose cane proved more powerful than the violin player’s bow.

Adaptations of familiar, beloved stories can be a touchy subject. Devoted fans are impossible to please, while those less familiar with the original may struggle to follow along. Dance introduces the added complexity of telling a story through movement. For these reasons, I managed my expectations of BalletX’s The Little Prince. I was pleasantly surprised. This well-executed production conveys timeless truths: we are equally powerless against death and love, but love endures.

What, When, Where

The Little Prince, part of BalletX’s Summer Series. Choreography by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Through July 21, 2019, at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 545-7824 or balletx.org.

The Wilma Theater is an ADA-compliant venue.

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