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The Little Prince: The choreography is compelling but doesn't grab the heart

Les Grands Ballets dancers : Kenji Matsuyama Ribeiro and Jean-Sa©bastien Couture

Photo:Jean-Laurent Ratel

Close but no cigar. In other words, while there is more right than wrong with Didy Veldman's full-length contemporary ballet The Little Prince, the work still misses the mark on punch and passion.

The Dutch choreographer is much beloved by Les Grands Ballets' audience, and her world premiere of The Little Prince was deservedly saluted with cheers and whistles. Yet, at 80 minutes without an intermission, the work needs an editor. It also suffers from choreographic sameness and evenness of tone.

That being said, Veldman has taken on the daunting task of transforming one of the most famous French literary classics into dance. It stands to reason that a good portion of the audience knows the book well, and is going to bring expectations with them to the theatre. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's 1943 novella has been translated into 250 languages. That's more than there are countries in the world.

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If not a perfect ballet, Veldman's Little Prince is an engaging one. Her choreographic approach is creating a journey. The Little Prince (Kenji Matsuyama Ribeiro) comes down to earth in a trail of stars. He then rarely leaves the stage, as intent as he is on watching the foibles of earthlings.

Ostensibly, Saint-Exupéry wrote a children's story about a Little Prince who comes to earth from his home asteroid. He is exploring other planets, particularly to find a cure for his loneliness. In the Sahara Desert, he meets a pilot who has crash-landed. The Pilot, who is the book's narrator, tells about the Prince's adventures with the narrow-minded adults on other planets, and the Prince's more meaningful encounters on earth.

Scholars agree, however, that the novella is a fable, rife with metaphor, symbolism and philosophical enquiry. The difficulty for any choreographer is taking the simplistic tale of adventure to a higher plane – if one is to do justice to Saint-Exupéry's vision.

Veldman gives it a good shot.

The choreographer has chosen to include key characters from the novella such as the Guide (Marcin Kaczorowski), who represents the pilot; the Snake (Karell Williams) who symbolizes death and temptation; and the Rose (Bryna Catherine Pascoe) who is the icon of love. The Lamplighter (Hervé Courtain), a character from the novella admired for his steadfastness, uses a follow spot to focus blinding light on the leading characters, so the latter can discover some home truths about themselves.

Veldman has also created characters who are composites, but each addresses a moral or ethical issue. The Leader (Edi Blloshmi) is a cruel tyrant, whipping his people into total obedience. The Unhappy One (Aline Schüger) hates her body, and wants to be like the two gorgeous Models (Giulia Vennari and Mahomi Endoh). The Narcissist (Vanesa G.R. Montoya) is impervious to any outside distraction. The Drinker (Jean-Sébastien Couture) is a loner who has blighted his life with alcohol. The Business Man (Andrew Skeels) is the epitome of the military-industrial establishment.

Veldman's choreography is stunning to behold. She's not afraid of big, bold movement including sweeping arms, huge lunges and big contractions that propel the dancer hurtling through space. There are amusing moments when the Prince tries to fit in, like joining the slaves cowering before the tyrant's commands, or marching in the crisp formation of the militaristic business men.

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The philosophic heart of the ballet is found in the expressive solos and duets, particularly the male duets. A duet for the Snake and the Little Prince is one of street smarts over innocence and charisma over compliance, as the two men weave around each other, the snake always the provocateur.

But, over time, Veldman's signature movement starts to look repetitive. The Prince's duet with his adored Rose lacks sizzle, while the ending, with the Prince fading into the background, leaving the Snake and Guide behind in limbo, is a whimper, not a bang.

The mostly British-based creative team is top drawer. Kimie Nakano's set design is breathtaking. The entire back wall is a projection screen, but one that, using live-cams, shows us the back of the dancers, something we ordinarily would not see.

There are also lavish draperies that drop from time to time, adding a texture of mystery to the set, obscuring as they do, the live-cam of the back projection wall.

A wonderful image is the flotilla of hats that appear on a revolving stage, a nod to the Pilot's story of his childhood drawing of a boa constrictor eating an elephant. Children (including the Little Prince) see the drawing for what it is, while adults see a picture of a hat. The Drinker, walking on a highway of glass tumblers, aided by the Prince, is a strong metaphor.

Philip Feeney's pastiche score fits the dance like a glove, while Mark Parent's clever lighting includes patterns of squares that act like a prison. Kimie's costumes – such as the Leader's long brown leather coat, or the Rose's flapper look – are wonderfully character correct.

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But overall, the ballet is medium-cool and, despite some compelling dancing and achingly beautiful choreography, it does not grab the heart.

The Little Prince

  • Choreography by Didy Veldman
  • Les Grands Ballets Canadiens
  • At Place des Arts
  • In Montreal on Thursday

The Little Prince continues in Montreal until May 12.

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