Watching The Little Prince at Place des Arts opening night was a gloriously intimate experience, even though the packed house was a little restless before the show began. It might’ve had something to do with the anticipation around seeing a new version of an old favourite that many people had dug into over the years. I first read The Little Prince in school, in French and in English, and while it’s not something I think about regularly, if it’s mentioned along with its author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, I’m suddenly taken back to my younger, wide-eyed self.
The Grands Ballets’ production, which lasts about 90 minutes, is an edited version of the original and a modern take on the alien theme, closer to movies like The Man Who Fell to Earth, or any Bowie video of the early ‘80s. Indeed, for the ballet, the Prince got a bit of the rock-star treatment in a metallic, shimmering vest that lit up all the way to the back row (where I was, incidentally). Mirror panels on a slant made the dancers’ movements appear almost like a distorted projection, as though they were weightless and multiplying before your eyes. It all had the feeling of an invasion, and when the dancers moved in halting, boot-camp formations, you were tempted to grunt right along with them.
A typical corps de ballet this was not, and the totalitarian vibe fit elegantly with Saint-Exupéry’s insights into humanity and materialism. Choreographer Didy Veldman and costume/set designer Kimie Nakano kept a sense of time ticking away as the Prince drifted through the corps, conveying the challenges to his youth and innocence. And then, lifted by Philip Feeney’s atmospheric music, the duets between the Prince and characters like the Rose, the Pilot, the Businessman, and the Lamplighter transformed into moving meditations on loss.
The enduring thing about the story of The Little Prince is that it translates well into other art forms, and dance is no exception, because the feeling of being alone, isolated in a world not of your making, can be powerfully expressed without any words at all.
Les Grands Ballets presented a show that deserved the near five-minute standing ovation it got from the audience, and whether those in attendance were avid fans of Saint-Exupéry’s work as a child or an adult, this staging of The Little Prince brought out Montreal grown-ups to revisit the lonely child within, and they couldn’t get enough.
Les Grands Ballets Canadiens’ The Little Prince is at Place des Arts, March 19-28. For more information, check out grandsballets.com.