The Little Mermaid, SF Ballet

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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The rotating cast of San Francisco Ballet’s “The Little Mermaid” includes (left to right) Yuan Yuan Tan,
Sarah Van Patten, Tiit Helimets and Pascal Molat
Photo © Erik Tomasson

The Little Mermaid

Choreography and scenic, costume and lighting design by John Neumeier
Music by Lera Auerbach
Conducted by Martin West
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
April 30-May 7, 2011

Kids be warned! There’s something fishy about “The Little Mermaid.” Not only isn’t the heroine named Ariel but John Neumeier’s re-telling of the famed Hans Christian Andersen tale takes all the dark parts and darkens them a bit more. Although the San Francisco Ballet’s season closer will probably cash in on the pre-teen baby ballerina market, Disney it ain’t and there isn’t a wisecracking crustacean in sight. What there is, however, is a singular modernist vision (John Neumeier, the Milwaukee-born head of the Hamburg Ballet, did all the design as well as choreography) that includes elements of homoeroticism, melodrama, whimsy and just plain nonsense. Whether you like it or hate it, the 14-scene, 2½-hour story-ballet is an undeniable achievement.

Created for the Hans Christian Andersen bicentennial celebration for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2005, the piece places the writer front and center. The character of The Poet (Pascal Molat) is omnipresent, sometimes like a puppet master, bending the other characters to his will; other times as much a victim of events and emotions as his hapless heroine. He is not explicitly identified as Andersen—although his top hat and frock coat amidst the modern garb of the rest of the cast would suggest so—yet, one cannot help but wonder what the Danes thought of their literary hero’s hopeless love for somebody named Edvard (Pierre-François Vilanoba) who breaks the poet’s heart by marrying a girl.

All this happens in a prologue, set on a ship most conveniently floating on a sea inhabited by mermaids, mermen, sea witches and all sorts of fantastic creatures. Edvard will return as the Prince and his bride (Vanessa Zahorian) as the Princess in the ensuing tale which weaves in and out of the water as the plot requires. The demarcation between worlds is a set of undulating neon ribbons, for my money the most distracting and least attractive element of Neumeier’s design. What works wonderfully is the Mermaid’s (here Sarah Van Patten—the role is shared throughout the run) claustrophobic room once she has become human, all angles and low ceilings for her to hit her head on; the ballroom scene, complete with chandelier and the final apotheosis, with the Poet and the Mermaid, the rejects of the story, dancing off in a scatter of stars.

Neumeier’s choreography is arresting, especially for the Mermaid, who begins most gracefully as a sea creature and ends as a stumbling, awkward human whose control over her newfound limbs is as shaky as her control over her unrequited love for the Prince. This is not pretty dancing but requires some heavy-duty acting and Van Patten does it superbly. The only truly lovely ballet sequences take place in the pas de deux of the Prince and the Princess. The rest is quite angular, choppy, with the exception of a few jolly dances for the ship’s crew and the scenery-chewing histrionics of Jaime Garcia Castilla’s Sea Witch, he with the power to exchange a finny tail for human legs. Composer Lera Auerbach’s score is modern, undistinguished and only memorable for one witty quotation from Kurt Weill and another, inexplicably, from Beethoven’s Fifth.

Ridiculous touches include a pair of nuns in sunglasses, the sea-bound Prince’s obsession with golf, definitely a land sport, and the inclusion of the (transformed) Mermaid as one of a gaggle of fuchsia-clad bridesmaids. Neumeier also seems over-fond of the elements of Japanese Noh theater that he keeps throwing in. The underwater scenes, however, are beautiful and the story of unrequited love as moving as it was when it was written more than a century ago. But it’s a long way from Disney—not necessarily a criticism.

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