One of the ongoing benefits of Gradimir Pankov's tenure as artistic director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens since 2000 is the number of hotshot European choreographers he has introduced to Canada. London-based, Dutch-born Didy Veldman is one of his favourite protégés: Les Grands has five of her works in its repertoire, including the original full-length Le Petit Prince, based on the beloved fable by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
The plot of the 1943 novel revolves around a pilot whose plane has crashed in the Sahara Desert, and his conversation with a little prince from a distant asteroid who is visiting Earth. As the pilot repairs his plane, the little prince tells the story of his life, which includes visiting six other asteroids, each with a different adult, all of whom are fools. The prince also learns important life lessons from characters he has met on Earth.
The company premiered Le Petit Prince in 2012 to great acclaim. This week, Les Grands is reviving the ballet, and The Globe reached Veldman in Montreal by phone after a day of rehearsals.
What attracted you to Le Petit Prince as a subject for a ballet?
I was inspired by the book's wonderful message of love. It really struck a chord with me. The book is still so popular because people can relate to the themes.
The obvious question is how do you translate a poetic book of philosophical musings into dance?
The challenge was to keep the purity and simplicity of the original intact. There was also the element of fear because everyone knows the story, so I couldn't take a well-known book completely out of context. My idea was to set the ballet in a more urban environment. Rather than have the Prince visit other planets, he would only visit Earth. Even when putting him into our environment, he could still have similar experiences to what he had in the book. I've made the pilot into a character I call the Guide, a gentle father figure who gives the Prince support and help throughout the piece. The ballet is a series of encounters that reflect the original storyline, only they take place entirely in our world.
Let's look at how you've dealt with some of the famous characters from the book. The Snake is important because he claims to have the power to return the Prince to his home asteroid, which can be interpreted as death.
In the ballet, the Snake does represent the darker side. Like Adam and Eve and the apple, he is the symbol of temptation, and the Prince metaphorically does bite the apple at the end. People who saw the ballet three years ago will notice a change. I wanted the Prince to fall slowly backward after the snakebite, but we couldn't pull that image off in 2012. Now, the technology is there, so we can create that slow fall in this revival by using a special harness.
The Rose, of course, is the prince's love interest.
As well as a solo Rose, I've put in a female ensemble who are rose petals. They represent falling in love. The moral in the book is that there can be more to life when you share it with someone.
How did you represent the foolish king?
I call him the Leader. He likes to lead and give orders, and his subjects like to follow. The Prince doesn't understand leading or being led. He tries to join in, but gives up.
You have a character called the Narcissist, whom I assume is the conceited man in the book.
I changed the Narcissist into a woman dressed in gold who wants to be adored. Her aim is to get the Prince to do what she wants, and what she wants is to be lifted higher and higher. She also keeps bowing to get applause and, without fail, the audience always claps on cue.
Can you describe your choreographic language in the piece?
My overall aim was finding movement to express the truthfulness of each character and relationship. That was my vision. Each character is defined by a signature move and a signature colour. Incidentally, I was unhappy with the Prince's original silver costume. This time, we found new material that looks like aluminum foil. I'm thrilled because now we have "Our Silver Star." The score is made up of different pieces of taped music that create a unique atmosphere for each scene. We go from Bach to contemporary composers.
The set reflects the skewed world that the Prince finds on Earth.
Yes. We use mirrors at the back of the stage, which allow for changing perspectives and different angles. We see the dancers from the front and from behind. At times we are looking from the outside in. The play of the projections in the mirrors provides the element of what I call structured chaos.
What is the overriding philosophy of your version of Le Petit Prince?
I want to avoid giving answers. Rather, I want to raise questions. Why do we have leaders? Why do we live in cities on top of one another? How come egos are so big? Why do we spend so little time looking at the smaller things in life? The book is about appreciating and cherishing the things that matter. This ballet is something very close to me.
Les Grands Ballets' Le Petit Prince is at Place des Arts in Montreal, March 19 to 28.