The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
October 1, 2019
The Little Prince
I was looking forward to BalletX’s The Little Prince. It was a favorite book of mine (and of many other readers), BalletX usually does a very fine work with almost anything, and the choreographer is Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, most of whose creations I’ve enjoyed a great deal. So what could go wrong?
Well, almost to the end, a lot. I’ve tried to understand what it was that made The Little Prince as disappointing as it was, and can’t come up with clear answers. Maybe I expected too much. Maybe it came across as too childish, without the moral compass that the children’s book that’s not just for children had. Maybe it’s just inherently difficult to choreograph a story, especially on an obviously low budget. Maybe I was expecting something a little closer to a fanciful reincarnation of BalletX co-founder Matthew Neenan’s Sunset, o639 Hours. Whatever it was, it ended up falling far short of expectations, much like another unsuccessful attempt at creating a story ballet from Hans Christian Andersen’s literary fairy tale, Justin Peck’s The Most Incredible Thing for New York City Ballet.
Even with these concerns, however, the dance should be seen if for no other reason than to witness a remarkable performance by Stanley Glover as “the Snake.”
The Little Prince is hardly unfamiliar. Since the publication of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “children’s book” in the US in 1943 (and in France, posthumously, in 1944), it reportedly has been translated into at least 300 languages, including Esperanto, Braille, and Klingon. And it’s far more than a children’s book. Like the best of fairy tales, it’s a morality tale of sorts, and a fable that subtly addresses the author’s concerns about human nature and things in life that really matter, or that don’t matter at all. And of course, it’s partly based on the author’s own experiences.
The story is told from the point of view of a narrator, who is a Pilot, who initially recounts how “grown-ups” cannot understand the significance of fanciful things. The aviator has crashed into the Sahara with only a limited supply of water (echoing the author’s own experience). The Pilot suddenly meets a young boy who is called “Little Prince,” who promptly tells the Pilot his story of life on a planet / asteroid, his battle to save the soil from invading pest plants, including baobab trees that once they take root, can grow too large and destroy the good plants. [Just like virulent ideas can destroy a benign civilization. Saint-Exupéry escaped France after it fell to the Nazis, moving to the U.S. – New York City – where he lived for many years and where much of The Little Prince was written, before returning to France to fight the Nazis, and dying while piloting a reconnaissance plane flying over the Mediterranean, presumably by crashing or being shot down. And, curiously, Andersen’s The Most Dangerous Thing is considered by many to have been a reaction to German militarism and the wars between Prussia and Denmark in the 1860s.]
While on his home asteroid, the Little Prince fell in love with a somewhat vain and sickly solitary Rose, whom he tried to nurse but ultimately concluded, even though he still loved her, that she was taking advantage of him, so he decided to explore the universe. [The Rose is based on his wife, according to many sources – including his wife.] He visited six tiny planets, each occupied by a sole, strange, self-centered character: a capricious king who issued meaningless decrees to sustain his sense of self-importance; a narcissistic man; a drunkard trying to forget; a businessman cataloguing stars in order to ultimately acquire them; a lamplighter who wastes his time lighting lamps on planet where the day lasts seconds; and a geographer who records what he’s never seen, and who encourages the Little Prince to visit Earth (which the narrator tells him is populated by about 2 billion “grown-ups,” each of whom exhibits one of the same types of character traits the boy had seen on these planet / asteroids.
To make a short story shorter, on Earth the Little Prince meets, among other characters (including a couple of additional ones who address the same societal flaws critiqued by the characters he found on the six planet / asteroids, except perhaps more tailored to traits confined to the U.S.), a snake who tells the boy he has the power to return home, a multitude of roses, which saddens the boy who realizes that the Rose he loves is not unique, and a Fox, who teaches him a la Aesop that the Rose became unique because the boy loved her, and that important things can only be seen with the heart, not the eyes. Longing to return home to see his Rose, he allows The Snake to bite him, and his body disappears.
In the dance, Lopez Ochoa has taken some liberties with the story: she increased the importance of The Snake, eliminated the “other characters” that the boy met on Earth except the Fox. Of course, the verbiage is gone, as are the key references to grown-ups not being able to understand fanciful things – which allowed Saint-Exupéry to couch his characters with traits that he criticizes, that the reader knows are camouflaged as simple silly cardboard characters. Without that understanding by the reader, the characters are simple silly cardboard characters.
And I suppose, in a nutshell, that’s the problem I have with the dance. What’s presented on stage comes across as fanciful, simplistic and concrete – a fair enough rendering of the supposed children’s story by a grown-up who can’t see any meaning to fanciful things, but which fails to capture what Saint-Exupéry was trying to communicate. So we have a silly king, a silly narcissist, a silly this, a silly that, with no purpose. Except for The Snake, it’s a children’s ballet that never rises to a higher level.
Added to this is the choreography, which (like the music, by Peter Salem) is perfectly appropriate to the story as Lopez Ochoa is telling it, but which, too, is simple, straightforward, and with some exceptions, unexceptional. By far the most memorable of these characters is The Snake. In Lopez Ochoa’s conception, The Snake is a sniveling, seductive messenger of death where death isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He has by far the most interesting choreography – a Fosse-like quality of attractive danger that never quits, and an irresistible sang-froid that communicates the certainty that he’ll be called into service whenever the boy, and the plotline, are ready. In this dance, there’s no doubt which character is in charge. And Glover does masterful work as the dark and sinister advocate for, and messenger of, death – but making himself likeable anyway.
Three other convincing roles were given solid interpretations: Skyler Lubin’s Narcissist, Andrea Yorita’s Lamplighter, and Francesca Forcella’s Rose. I’m not sure that Lopez Ochoa’s conversion of The Narcissist from a male to a female will be greeted with enthusiasm, but Lubin does a fine job with the choreography and the acting, emphasizing the character traits with appropriate overacting, and milking applause for herself from anyone within eyeshot. As The Lamplighter, Yorita bobbed up and down so fast that it wasn’t clear what she was doing, but I couldn’t avoid watching her percolate. And as The Rose, Forcella played the attractive love interest with a rare combination of sensuality, distance, and hypochondria.
The choreography includes duets for the Little Prince and the Pilot, and the Little Prince and the Snake, that were supposed to relate conflict or friendship, and I suppose in a sense they did, but even though there were differences between each duet, it all looked too much like the same thing – and having bodies lifted and turned upward and legs thrust into the air repeatedly can get tiresome. And when they’re not playing characters, the nine characters besides the Pilot and the Little Prince doubled as some combination of towns-folk (desert-folk or planet-folk, I suppose), Greek Chorus, and action facilitators (e.g., the wind beneath the boy’s wings as he travels from place to place) who frequently carry long sticks with what were supposed to be character or scenic representations at their tops.
I have no criticism of Roderick Phifer’s portrayal of the Little Prince: he executed the choreography cleanly, displayed an appropriate level of boyish enthusiasm or sadness. But I must admit that he lost me as soon as he appeared sporting a mustache. It’s not his fault, and granted that the character isn’t a “real” boy, but boys, little princes, and especially dancers portraying the Little Prince, do not have mustaches. The role doesn’t need to be played by a boy with any particular racial or ethnic background, or even by a boy, but a mustache is too much … in your face. Zachary Kapeluck, who played the Pilot, executed with dumbfounded enthusiasm (and he may be carving an alternative career as a dancing, and sometimes crashing, aviator – he played the subject aviator in Sunset, o639 Hours).
The combined earth-folk and character dancers did what they were given to do well and enthusiastically, but the individual character roles were plain cardboard. Richard Villaverde’s The Fox was remarkably unconvincing – but that wasn’t his fault, it’s the way the character was drawn. [He also doubled, well, tripled, as The Drunk, but that role, as recreated here, was even less inspired.] The King was portrayed with feverish rigidity by Blake Krapels, and without a hint of executive arrogance. Caili Quan’s The Geographer went through the motions without the role giving any indication of the author’s purpose. Most distressingly, Chloe Felesina Perkes, whom I recall vividly from past BalletX programs, was wasted here in the role of The Businessman. Although I understood what the character was doing, which was not easy to successfully communicate, there wasn’t much there; and suit-swaddled, I didn’t recognize her.
But I do give the ballet credit: it ended well. In the final scene, which is a jumble of activity – including a wonderful visualization of the “repaired” crashed airplane taking off, or about to, with The Pilot in it (set by Matt Saunders; lighting by Michael Korsch), all the creativity that should have been there all along kicked in, as the Little Prince, amid a starlit stage and set, let himself get bitten (off view, as I recall); and as the Pilot was looking for him, emerged as a radiating star, presumably near his Rose. This masterful ending allowed the audience to cheer and leave the theater uplifted. And when an unimpressive dance ends as movingly as this one did, it makes me think that maybe I missed something that was there all along – l suppose like many grown-ups who read The Little Prince.