“The Little Prince” remains one of the best-selling and most-translated books in history.
In the 76 years since its first publication, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original French novella has been adapted to screen and stage and interpreted through everything from graphic novel to movie musicals to opera.
Now, one of Philadelphia’s most cutting-edge dance companies is putting its own spin on the classic story.
BalletX is premiering choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “The Little Prince” — a full-length, family-friendly ballet — through July 21 at the Wilma Theater.
“[Ochoa] gave the movement such a playful feel, and it makes it exciting, yet athletic,” said Roderick Phifer, who dances the role of the title character. “I feel that this will give the audience a chance to develop a relationship with the little-prince character.”
The out Phifer admitted he didn’t grow up on the famed novella — which, he said, enabled him to take on the role with an open mind. And he immediately related to the prince’s character “because I was always the fearless kid who loved learning new things, people and spaces.”
The dancer said his character’s complexity comes with his relationship to the pilot, who crashes his plane and lands in the desert, and subsequently hallucinates from dehydration — which reveals the prince for the first time.
“The story revolves around their journey together to try and help save the pilot. Along the way, the little prince shows the pilot that his key to happiness is through curiosity and to not anticipate what’s next,” said Phifer, adding the movement component: “His character requires specific theatrics in expression and body language.”
With such a serious message, Ochoa’s “The Little Prince” extends beyond a fanciful fairytale. Yet, in an ode to playfulness, she incorporates white boxes reminiscent of blocks onstage.
As Phifer has learned, “The Little Prince” is full of symbolism. And, as the dancer took to expressing his character, he said he realized how easy it is for adults to lose innocence and motivation.
“We get older and forget that the one true thing that makes us is our creativity and individuality.”
Phifer, a North Carolina native, has been dancing with the nationally renowned BalletX since his senior year at University of the Arts, from which he graduated in 2017. The contemporary dance company aligns with his sensibilities.
“I find it more intriguing to bend the rules a bit,” he said. “Creatively, bodies can do so many things, and how we communicate to an audience with them is important. Translating movement into a concept requires so much detail and precision. It’s so much more complicated than it seems and, as performers, it’s our job to value it.”
Phifer and his fellow dancers also value hard work: While many performance companies slow down for the summer, BalletX has kicked the season into high gear with the ambitious production.
Artistic and Executive Director Christine Cox, who co-founded the company with Matthew Neenan in 2005, called upon an award-winning team for “The Little Prince,” including famed Philly scenic designer Matt Saunders, U.K. ballet and film/TV composer Peter Salem, renowned dramaturg Nancy Meckler and Ochoa, a Belgium native based in the Netherlands whose choreography credits include a much-heralded ballet rendition of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Before preparation for this production, BalletX also was busy moving to its new home at 1923 Washington Ave. — a space that, Phifer said, “gives the aura of a giant lab where we are always researching a fresh way to share.”
The steady creative output keeps the dancers moving — and, according to Phifer, challenges them to take chances.
“BalletX is a group that enjoys risks and new ideas, and it plays a big part of the company’s character.”
For more information and tickets to “The Little Prince,” visit balletx.org.