How much money do you need to spend on a ballet to disguise colourless choreography, thematic incoherence and a void of any real artistic thought, impulse or risk?
Clearly more than $2-million.
The much-hyped National Ballet of Canada production of Le Petit Prince, which opened on Saturday in Toronto, felt like a magician's gamble in distraction. The thinking seemed to be that if the costumes were lavish enough, the set clever enough, the music swelling enough, then the audience wouldn't notice (or perhaps care) that very little was happening at the level of dancing, concept and emotion.
I worry this is the long-lasting result of the commercial success of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland – the 2011 Christopher Wheeldon ballet that trades choreographic innovation for cheap eye candy. And eye candy wouldn't be the end of the world if the candy were, in fact, visually exciting. But after the umpteenth sphere opened in the wall of designer Michael Levine's circle-themed set in Le Petit Prince, I felt unable to muster another ooh or aah.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's 1943 novella about an aviator who crashes his plane in the Saharan desert, and befriends (or imagines) a little boy from a faraway asteroid, might well have been good source material for a ballet. The book's big themes deal in love, loss, friendship and imagination, all of which could have found visceral life inside a performing body grounded in a classical lexicon.
Think, for example, of the way choreographer Alexei Ratmansky is able to ingeniously conjure the physical paranoia of life under Stalin in his Shostakovich Trilogy (from which the National Ballet performed two parts in 2015). But in Le Petit Prince, choreographer Guillaume Côté seems to have stunted himself on two levels – taking a naive approach to both structure and content and, in so doing, vastly underestimating his audience's intelligence, a sin I find hard to forgive.
Structurally, the ballet consists mostly of introducing each of the novella's archetypical characters, whom the little prince meets as he planet-hops. Each symbolizes a vice of the modern world and they are spoon-fed to us through pat literalizations and flat choreography, their titles appearing in Jean Cocteau cursive on the wall.
The King (Nan Wang) materializes in a hooded unitard in a sphere of orange light. His underlings float a cartoonish crown over his head before they all congregate in a sequence of bland, jazzy steps that have little aesthetic continuity with much else.
While the Vain Woman (Alexandra MacDonald) and her entourage of reflections (played by five female dancers) have beautiful tutus made to look as if they're built of broken glass, there's very little to this sequence save for the idea of mirroring itself. The spheres on stage are flipped around to become reflective surfaces; the dancers play a mirroring game, forming a straight line and imitating the Vain Woman's movements.
Then there's the Business Man and his cronies with drum-shaped lights, the Drunk with his floating bottles of booze, the Lamplighters with their Janus-head (orange front/black back) costumes. Like the simplicity of children's theatre, it's just a sequence of visual gimmicks.
An even greater disappointment came in the love story between the Prince (Dylan Tedaldi) and his Rose (Tanya Howard) – a narrative element that is only touched upon in the book but leaves such potential for choreographic interpretation.
Saint-Exupéry describes a woman who is impetuous, self-involved, proud and needy, but there isn't a trace of this complexity in her long pas de deux with the Prince. Instead, Côte creates a female character who is inscrutable to the point of blankness, consisting of little more than the long hair that sweeps over her face and shoulders as she lifts her legs high in all directions.
In fact, when I try to recall details of the choreography, that's really all I can see: high extensions one after another; a lift here, a pirouette there. It seems like a brutally squandered opportunity, when these pas de deux could have been so tense, intimate and sensual; they could have conjured real personalities and told us ineffable things about emotional neediness and commitment.
This blanket inscrutability may be a good way to describe the underlying feel of the whole ballet. It felt particularly acute in the Prince's relationship with the Aviator (Harrison James) – a key one that frames the whole novella and one that I felt wasn't handled artfully or effectively.
Again, clear choices needed to be made for this to work onstage. A rich possibility existed in thinking of the Prince and the Aviator as the same person – the Prince being the Aviator's hallucination of himself as a child – and this could have been beautifully conjured through overlapping and syncopated choreography, their bodies spooning tightly together, finding unison then breaking apart.
Instead, I'm not sure what was trying to be conjured other than … ballet steps, and steps as prosaic as an across-the-floor routine done in your average technique class.
Harrison James and Dylan Tedaldi are both exceptional dancers who have spent the past season distinguishing themselves with polished, charismatic work. I've never seen either look so non-committed and technically shaky, as though they were unsure of both the actual steps and the emotional motivation behind them.
Tedaldi's pointing and yearning had a boyish silliness; James's sorrow at the Prince's death felt melodramatic and unearned. The show felt unable to fulfill the stakes it seemed to set for itself, a sense that was exacerbated by Kevin Lau's big orchestral score. It soared and descended with emotional amplitude and Hollywood undertones that felt completely incommensurate with the dearth of character and feeling onstage.
The question I'm left with is: What happened? How could a four-year-in-the-making production, the result of one the largest private gifts in the company's history, go so wrong?
I have a few ideas. I think in their desperation to fill seats, to make ballet accessible and mainstream, the National has forgotten that ballet can never escape its elemental nakedness – that this elemental nakedness is the best thing it has.
No matter the lavish extravagances of costume and set, ballet is about exposure – life's big emotions exposed by a live body moving in space. When this stops being the starting point for new choreography – a choreographer doing slow, physically (and metaphysically) inventive and deconstructive work in the studio – then the anxiety around ballet's obsolescence and irrelevance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.