California Literary Review

San Francisco Ballet: The Little Mermaid

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May 6th, 2011 at 10:16 pm

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Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Neumeier's The Little Mermaid © Erik Tomasson

Full-length story ballets sell more tickets than mixed bills. The best take the audience members on a journey, absorbing them in the narrative. This season, San Francisco Ballet presented two classic story ballets in stellar productions — Giselle and Coppélia. But, SFB, like all ballet companies is looking for the new classic, the new ballet that enters the small rotation of perennial favorites — one that can take its place with the Swan Lakes, Romeo and Juliets, Nutcrackers, and Sleeping Beauties.

Last season, SFB added John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid as its latest entry in the full-length sweepstakes, repeating it this year to close the 2011 season. Originally created in 2005 for the Royal Danish Ballet, the ballet offers a dramatic opportunity for the company’s ballerinas — an intense lead role that holds them onstage for most of the lengthy work (2 ½ hours, including intermission).

The sets, lighting, and costumes, also by Neumeier, are stunning. Especially effective is the use of simple, shaped strands of neon that raise and lower to depict the ocean depth. The lightly-lit underwater scenes focus on a gentle life punctuated only by natural occurrences and encounters with the Sea Witch. Costumes and makeup for the seascape scenes are a hodge-podge of Asian influences that somehow make for a unified artistic expression with muted colors and graceful lines. In contrast, the world above is brightly, even harshly lit, all angles and staccato energy, with the shipboard activities looking very much like scenes from a touring Noel Coward musical.

The Story

Although described as being more closely aligned with the Andersen tale, this is an exposition more focused on the pain and suffering aspect of the story than in the redemptive resolution of the original. Andersen’s Mermaid is not primarily interested in the Prince, but recognizes that his love can help her gain an immortal soul, something the merpeople do not possess. For this to happen, however, the Prince must fall in love with and marry her. If he doesn’t, her deal with the Sea Witch is that she will die, turning into sea foam.

Anderson, though, gave his Mermaid another way out (fairytale logic — always a loophole). Because of her selflessness when she refuses the Sea Witch’s second deal to kill the Prince and regain her fins and underwater life, the Mermaid avoids the sea foam death and becomes a “daughter of the air,” a creature of light who can earn an immortal soul through 300 years of good deeds. At the end of the day, Andersen’s Mermaid achieves her spiritual goal.

Not so much for Neumeier’s Mermaid. She doesn’t get the guy, and she is somehow condemned to aimlessly wander the stars with The Poet, a Neumeier addition, who simultaneously acts as creator, narrator, and fellow sufferer. Lots of pain and no gain. Grim.

In addition, Neumeier makes the choreographic decision to eliminate the Andersen plot point that even though voiceless and in great pain, the Mermaid is as graceful and lovely on land as she was at sea. This is an odd choice as it would have given Neumeier a richer step vocabulary to pull from in creating the title character — a Mermaid who could have had a shot at the Prince, and a choice that could have built a sense of dramatic tension. Instead, he limits her to a repetitive choreographic range that often goes directly from painful-to-watch right through to ho-hum. Even someone less shallow than this Prince would find it impossible to treat the emotionally and physically challenged Mermaid as a love interest.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Neumeier's The Little Mermaid © Erik Tomasson

Neumeier says that he sees the story as one whose concept is of a “love that is so strong that it can overcome boundaries, that it can transport her [the Mermaid] to new worlds.” Unfortunately, the message that is hammered over and over comes across as, “Hey, kids. Don’t try anything new. Look what horrible things can happen to the adventurous.” Definitely not a happy message and one that especially makes this a ballet Not for Children — unless you want them to live at home until they are fifty.

The Performance

The dancers are, as usual, excellent. For his Mermaid, it’s as if Neumeier had a visual picture of Yuan Yuan Tan in mind when he created the role. A supremely gifted dancer, she embodies her character so completely that it seems impossible that this is the same woman who danced so joyously in Giselle. Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets as the Prince and Princess are a beautiful golden couple, Davit Karapetyan embodies the Sea Witch with a menace that lingers far beyond his moments on stage, and Pascal Molat invests The Poet with a longing for missed opportunities and unfulfilled dreams. Among the excellent performances of soloists and corps de ballet, special mention goes to the Magic Shadows of Gaetano Amico, Daniel Deivison, and Garen Scribner who so securely supported Tan as she “swam” through the sea.

The score, purpose-built by contemporary composer Lera Auerbach, is more of a collection of her musical influences than anything original. Quotes from Weill, Beethoven, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich are heard repeatedly throughout the score, which operates as more of a backdrop rather than an integral part of the ballet. Martin West conducted the excellent orchestra with his usual skill.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan in Neumeier's The Little Mermaid © Erik Tomasson

Each year, ballet companies seek to add to the roster of the guaranteed seat-fillers. Sometimes they get a hit; often it’s a miss. What makes it more difficult is that it may take ten or twenty years, sometimes even longer, before the dance world acknowledges a new entry to the small group. Some “recent” successes include Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon (1974), George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1964), and John Cranko’s Onegin (1965) — which SFB is adding to its repertoire for the 2012 season.

Audiences and critics are divided on The Little Mermaid. Some love it; some hate it; no one sits on the fence. It will be years before the jury is completely in on this one.

San Francisco Ballet
The Little Mermaid (Neumeier/Auerbach)
Through May 8, 2011
War Memorial Opera House
www.sfballet.org

  • Frank

    I agree with much of your article (and you’re the first person to mention some of what should be obvious issues with Neumeier’s ballet).

    I’ve read the Anderson fairy tale recently as a a matter of fact, and it differs in enough aspects (as you note) that it can be a bit jarring for the viewer to try to figure out what is going on – What’s up with golf? What does the Mermaid’s little room signify? Is it to be taken literally? figuratively? Why does the ‘dance’ within the room appear more than once? Why use the room for the wedding group to lounge in? Why the need to make the Mermaid a figment of the Poet’s imagination rather than a real creature? That strikes me as a modern conceit (we’re too modern to believe in fairy tales, so let’s make this all about the gay Poet).

    I’m a fan of Neumeier’s Sylvia, which is full of truly interesting and imaginative choreography. And I think Sylvia hangs together in a way that The Little Mermaid never will. However, the SF Ballet presentation is wonderful to look at, and Yuan Yuan Tan is simply spellbinding in the role of Little Mermaid (I happened to go on one of the nights when the production was being filmed for PBS’s Great Performances). Thank goodness it WAS filmed, since it is hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of the role any time soon. Ironically, past reviewers of Tan, if critical, seem to point to her acting abilities rather than her dancing abilities as her weak point, but she has obviously worked hard to improve her facial expressiveness – she is what makes this production so emotionally heartrending, not the over-long, often confused storytelling.

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