Full-length ballets usually mean dancing candies, swans, or courtyard scenes. But not the ones that Annabelle Lopez Ochoa makes. The Belgian-Colombian choreographer has made ballets of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather (called Vendetta, Storie di Mafia), and about Frida Kahlo.
Her latest is about a prince — but not the glass-slipper kind. It is based on one of her favorite books, The Little Prince, about the young intergalactic traveler, the downed pilot he meets on Earth, his beloved rose on the asteroid that’s his home, and the confounding world of grown-ups. BalletX will premiere it Wednesday night at the Wilma Theater, and it’s already booked for two major U.S. dance venues after that.
It is Ochoa’s fifth commission for the company. “I’m a big fanatic of trying to find new story ballets for the canon,” she said. “I believe storytelling will always touch an audience.”
The Little Prince is one of the world’s best-selling and most beloved books. It has been translated into 300 languages and was named France’s favorite book of the 20th century. In the United States, though, it is often known as a children’s book or one students read in French classes.
With a limited pool of characters, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s charming novella works well for a small company, Ochoa said. "I thought it would be really well-suited for BalletX.”
BalletX artistic director Christine Cox liked the idea, too. Her company’s South Philly studio has a growing body of students, and she brings her own children, 6 and 10, to all her shows.
“I want it to be a thing where the whole family can experience a program,” Cox said. “Adults can engage, kids can use their imagination.”
Ochoa agrees that The Little Prince is easily viewed on two levels.
“The book is actually not a children’s book,” Ochoa said. “It’s just that the author had made these really sweet drawings. … It’s really a story of a lot of symbolism that only an adult audience really understands.
“De Saint-Exupéry was also a pilot," she said. “And so the book is really research. It’s like the little prince is himself, the child within him, questioning the meaning of life.”
The character of the rose in The Little Prince, Ochoa said, represents the stormy relationship de Saint-Exupéry had with his wife, Consuelo.
“The little prince does not understand how that rose is so demanding,” Ochoa said. “And he learns that actually, you have to build relationships by taming each other. So by caring for each other every day, that’s how you get attachment to someone.”
Despite some deep themes, the childhood delights are clear in Ochoa’s ballet. At a recent rehearsal, Ochoa and the dancers were working with a set made of large boxes, origami birds on long sticks, and a spyglass made out of a cardboard tube.
The birds will carry the audience from scene to scene. They are taken from one line in the book: “I believe that for his escape he took advantage of the migration of a flock of wild birds.”
The set was inspired by children who are often more interested in a box than they are in the gift inside.
“By the end, they play with the wrapping paper,” Ochoa said. The gift is one thing, she said, "and the wrapping paper can be a lot of things. And so I’m inviting the audience to be a child and to imagine what those boxes are.”
Bookings in Philadelphia and beyond
Cox expects The Little Prince to be so popular that she has added a performance to the run, bringing the total to 13 shows in Philadelphia.
“It’s our first full-length ballet by a female choreographer, which is just wrong," said Cox, who commissions several new ballets a year. “I want to change that.”
The Little Prince has a $350,000 budget, Cox said. The bill adds up with Ochoa’s choreography and original music from Peter Salem (known for his work on BBC’s Call the Midwife), who will also perform on stage as a one-man band. British theater director Nancy Meckler is the dramaturg, keeping the story on track.
Opening night’s cast includes Roderick Phifer as the prince, Zachary Kapeluck as the pilot, Francesca Forcella as the rose, and Stanley Glover as the snake, a role that will be danced by a woman, Caili Quan, in alternate performances.
All should create a new world at the Wilma.
“It’s fun to make,” Ochoa said, from an office overlooking the studio. “Then the magic comes when you take everything and it goes on to the stage.”
BalletX in “The Little Prince”
Wednesday through July 21, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.
Tickets: $25-$65, 215-546-7824.