The Little Prince seemed like it would be one of the hottest tickets of the summer. But it’s more than that. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s new full-length work for BalletX is easily one of the top two highlights of Philadelphia’s dance scene so far in 2019, along with Rennie Harris’ Lazarus.
Ochoa’s work received its world premiere Wednesday night, when BalletX opened its summer season at the Wilma Theater.
The Little Prince is probably the most immersive work BalletX has taken on. The sets are simple — hundreds of white cardboard boxes (by set designer Matt Saunders). But there’s magic, whimsy, and impressive dancing at every turn, drawing the audience in.
Ochoa’s choreography and theater director Nancy Meckler’s libretto and dramaturgy make The Little Prince feels at times like The Wizard of Oz, as the prince and pilot meet whackadoodle characters on their interstellar journey and attempt to return home. It feels like the Garden of Eden, too, with temptation by snake. And it feels like the Nutcracker, taking us through a dreamlike state of wonder.
The music is a new score, composed and played onstage by Peter Salem (known for BBC’s Call the Midwife). At times it sounds percussive, at other times Spanish, and sometimes like international folk music. All work well with the dance. Danielle Truss’ costumes range from simple tunics to the prince’s detailed jacket to the lamp lighter’s outrageous lampshade hat.
Unlike Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella, Ochoa’s Little Prince is framed by the snake, who represents death (but is no more scary for young audience members than the circle of life theme in The Lion King). Stanley Glover, in a very sleek, shimmery unitard, slithered spectacularly in the tempestuous role Wednesday night.
Indeed, this snake is so spectacular that it outshines the prince and pilot. Glover had beautiful lines, a cane, and a bowler hat, all of which he used to great effect. (The role is danced in alternate performances by a woman, Caili Quan, who had the role of the geographer in Wednesday’s performance.)
The piece opens with Glover in a sultry dance, with charming moments to break the mood. Suns, moons, stars, and globes (by associate set designer Petra Floyd) pop up on sticks behind the boxes.
The scene is further interrupted as the pilot (Zachary Kapeluck) crashes to earth, where he meets the prince (Roderick Phifer) and their adventures begin. We find out about their short remaining water supply and the prince’s stormy relationship with his precious rose.
As the ballet progresses, the prince learns what love is, the pilot rebuilds his plane, and we discover a group of bleating dancers that may be a sheep. But the prince doesn’t see it that way. As in most story ballets, the first half tells so much of the story that it almost seems complete by intermission.
If you haven’t read de Saint-Exupéry’s book, you should at least peruse the synopsis before the lights go down. The story is clear and thoroughly delightful, but a bit too surreal to go into without that groundwork.
BalletX in “The Little Prince”
Through July 21, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.