In The Studio: BalletX poised to premiere The Little Prince

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal | photo credit Vikki Sloviter

Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa first read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry as a child, and then re-read the tale in several translations as she studied different languages later in life. Each time, she understood the layers of the story more deeply and became increasingly enchanted by the imagery of the tale. Thus, when BalletX Director Christine Cox asked Lopez Ochoa to create a narrative ballet for the company, she eagerly suggested The Little Prince. The new production – a fantasy whose logic is based on the imagination of children – will premiere on July 10 at the Wilma Theater.

Last week I looked in on a rehearsal for the ballet at the company’s spacious new headquarters in South Philadelphia – where passersby peeked in through the windows as well. Lopez Ochoa ran the dancers through the piece, stopping frequently to modify small details of the movement. “They’re open to trying new things,” said the choreographer of the versatile troupe. “They let me search, and then they let me make changes.”

In the studio, the dancers navigated amongst white boxes stacked up on stage, sometimes moving the boxes around to suggest elements of the story. At one point, the boxes assume the form of trees that threaten to choke out the Little Prince’s beloved Rose growing on his tiny planet. The set is designed by Matt Saunders and evokes the ability of children to transform the simplest of building blocks into anything their imaginations can dream up. This playful approach is central to the theme of The Little Prince, and also to Lopez Ochoa’s choreographic method: “I always try to let my inner child loose when I work on a piece,” she explained.

The Little Prince is the third collaboration undertaken by Lopez Ochoa with composer Peter Salem and dramaturg Nancy Meckler. The trio previously worked together on A Streetcar Named Desire for the Scottish National Ballet and Broken Wings (about Frida Kahlo) for the English National Ballet. Salem has composed soundtracks for numerous film and television projects and brings a keen sense of musical drama to the score. He will perform his original music live on stage, situated in the midst of the dancers.

Lopez Ochoa said that Meckler, a well-known theater director in the UK, will arrive next week to help the dancers hone their acting skills. The Aviator, whose plane crashes in the Sahara, will be played by Zachary Kapeluck. In the desert, he meets the Little Prince – a curious boy with a loveable laugh – portrayed by Roderick Phifer. The Little Prince has left his beloved Rose, danced by Francesca Forcella, behind on his tiny home planet while he explores the rest of the universe.   Meckler’s task is to sharpen up the dramatic elements of the ballet and to ensure that the narrative communicates clearly to the audience.

Lopez Ochoa first choreographed a piece for BalletX in 2008, when she and the company were both setting out on their artistic paths. “We’ve grown together,” said the choreographer, who has made several more ballets for the company in the ensuing years. She noted that female choreographers usually have to prove themselves by making good dances, while male choreographers merely have to show that they have potential, in order for company directors to commission more of their work. Choreographers need opportunities to develop their talent, said Lopez Ochoa, and she credits BalletX Director Christine Cox with giving her those opportunities. Having received the 2019 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, it’s clear that Lopez Ochoa’s talent is burning bright.

The Little Prince will run for two weeks in Philadelphia, July 10 through 21, before traveling to the Vail International Dance Festival at the end of July, and then the Joyce Theater in NYC in October.

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