Petit Prince Reimagined in La Fille and Rose

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Tara Dyberg’s La Fille and Rose, a contemporary dance adaptation of Le Petit Prince, was almost risky in its rare choices to elucidate, rather than obscure its overall message. Supported by an original score by Barry Sebastian and textual projections by Vin Hill, Dyberg presented a modern-day story ballet, re-envisioning Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic tale. Dyberg premiered the full-length work for four dancers at the Fremont Abbey Arts Center on November 7-8, offering a Saturday night Q&A for further clarification and a window into her creative process immediately following the performance. The abundance of explanation, both in the talkback and through projections of text during the piece, seemed to be Dyberg’s effort to make the work accessible to audiences of all ages, including a group of schoolchildren who watched the Friday matinee performance and whose drawings were displayed at the show.

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The cast of Tara Dyberg’s La Fille and Rose
Photo by Stephen Byrne

In La Fille, each dancer portrayed both a main character and a corps member, in a structure common to classical ballet. The petite, pixie-coiffed Ashleigh Claire Miller was aptly cast as La Fille, corresponding to Le Prince in the original story. She fondly tends to Rose (Victoria McConnell, a character who can be seen either as an animate flower or a vain and beautiful woman. Renaming Le Petit Prince’s character as “La Fille” (French for “the young girl”) at first seemed inappropriate, but Dyberg explained that she wanted the love story to be gender-neutral and to acknowledge her all-female cast. In the context of the title, this decision plays on the French ballad, “La Vie en Rose,” which also featured briefly in the musical score. The composer, Sebastian, seamlessly integrated his original composition with excerpts from a wide range of popular music. The tender and loving dynamic between Rose and La Fille resonated well with Dyberg’s inspiration of nursing her own husband back to health after a debilitating accident, but the gender reassignment of La Fille made the true nature of her relationship with Rose ambiguous. Were the two characters depicting a same-sex romantic partnership, or a friendship? If Rose is not even a human, perhaps she is a genderless alien living on Asteroid B-612? Although Dyberg chose to force a clear narrative, some nuances of her plot revision remained unexplained.

The most compelling sections of pure dance were located in the middle of the piece, when La Fille travels from the asteroid to different planets to meet their single-minded inhabitants. Dyberg offers a combo-platter of disparate genres of dance, choreographing a garden of roses as classical ballerinas with fluttering scarves for petals, a planet of kings “obsessed with power” as strong hip hop dancers with plenty of attitude, and aloof party girls as egomaniacal club revelers taking selfies. Text projected on the back wall of the Abbey provided a context for each stage of La Fille’s journey, reminding viewers that they were watching an adapted novella.

Ashleigh Claire Miller and Mariko Nagashima in Tara Dyberg's La Fille and Rose Photo by Stephen Byrne
Ashleigh Claire Miller and Mariko Nagashima in Tara Dyberg’s La Fille and Rose
Photo by Stephen Byrne

On a planet of businesspeople “greedy for money,” the dancers collected colorful slips of paper reminiscent of Monopoly currency, their facial expressions visibly ranging from covetous, to elated, to dismayed as they swapped the cash. The dancers’ expressions effectively communicated Dyberg’s concepts and enhanced the movement, expertly walking the line between melodrama and subtlety. The dancers vocalized about the state of the stock markets, saying, “The NASDAQ is up,” or “The Dow is falling,” as they embodied a rollercoaster of emotions and bank account balances, rising up or falling to the floor as if being acted upon by outside forces.

Dyberg revealed during the Q&A that she had felt least comfortable with the power-hungry kings section, and her extra attention to this segment clearly paid off in the choreography’s intricacy and texture. The kings moved to a hip hop score with palpable pressure, as if mechanically pushing their limbs through viscous fluid, standing in wide power stances while staring down the front row and flipping their fingers up to the top of their heads as crowns. All of the dancers showcased their technical virtuosity throughout the work and, most impressively, their versatility. They appeared equally at ease as the balletic roses, the pedestrian businesspeople, or the hip hop-inspired kings.

Victoria McConnell and Ashleigh Claire Miller in Tara Dyberg's La Fille and Rose Photo by Stephen Byrne
Victoria McConnell and Ashleigh Claire Miller in Tara Dyberg’s La Fille and Rose
Photo by Stephen Byrne

The event also offered a few extras, inviting the audience to participate and invest in the work more actively. The composer’s band, Sebastian and the Deep Blue, played downstairs before and after the performance, and Dyberg asked audience members to draw a picture of a snake eating an elephant with a crayon, a task that emerged in the prologue as well. In this first section, Dyberg showed a postmodern-style deconstruction of the choreographer-dancer relationship as she gave feedback to Mariko Nagashima, who embodied the character of Snake with total commitment, her elbow striking forward like a rapid snakebite. In the background, an artist drew on an easel and the dancers wondered aloud whether it mattered if a viewer saw a hat when the artist intended to show an elephant being engulfed by a snake.

Dyberg and her cast of dancers were exceptional and her social commentary was witty, but the formalized story-ballet organization detracted from their exquisite movement. The narrative structure and discussion afterwards provided too much information about some obvious things and failed to answer pertinent questions about others. One of dance’s strengths in comparison to other performance art forms can be that choreographers do not need to rely on spoken or printed words to tell a story. Including textual projections removed an element of mystery from the performance and prevented the audience from interpreting the work in a personal way.  It seems that Dyberg is interested in exploring intersections between dance genres and might soon find a way to appropriate valuable facets of narrative, reworking them to serve her purposes in the present day.

Find more information on Tara Dyberg here.