"The Little Mermaid"
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
March 20, 2010
by Rita Felciano
copyright © Rita Felciano, 2010
The audience rose to a prolonged standing ovation. The dancers had performed superbly. The production is spectacular. The story of unconditional love is touching. San Francisco Ballet has a hit on its hands. What it doesn't have is a first rate ballet. John Neumeier's "The Little Mermaid," commissioned by the Royal Danish Ballet in 2005, and adapted for his own Hamburg Ballet in 2007, has so much going for itself that it is a pity it isn't better than it is.
Neumeier took Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale about a mermaid (Yuan Yuan Tan) who falls in love with a very human prince (Tiit Helimets) and turned it into a story of two ultimate outsiders, the Poet, Lloyd Riggins and his muse, the Mermaid, who is also his creation. In Neumeier's hands this parable of persisting in the pursuit of an unattainable ideal acquires Wagnerian proportions--except that Lera Auerbach score comes no way near to the German composer's genius. The fact that Neumeier named the prince Edvard, the real life man with whom Anderson was deeply in unrequited love, may not be the most subtle of parallels but the tears that the Poet drops into the sea while witnessing Edvard's wedding at the beginning of the ballet, nicely sets the story in motion. It also prefigures one of the Mermaid's most heart-rending plights: she cannot cry. Again and again, Tan claws at her face willing tears to come.
The underwater scenes are handled beautifully. Neumeier sensibly focused the story on the mermaid. Her sisters and whatever else inhabits the deep are mostly kept in a murky dark; wafting and swaying they become the seascape. By putting Tan into long blue silk pants and giving her three Bunraku-type handlers, he excellently solved the thorny problem of dancing without legs. In the hands of these Magic Shadows (the expertly deployed Gaetano Amico, Daniel Deivison and Garen Sribner), Tan floats, cavorts and dives with the greatest of ease. Never has Tan used her infinitely pliable body and tendril-like limbs to more graceful effect. The elegantly choreographed underwater duet with Helimets, whom Tan is trying to keep from drowning, blossoms from playful curiosity into real attraction through intertwining limbs. Tan becomes almost motherly to Helimets curled-up child.
Above water "Mermaid" becomes more problematic. In order to establish the Prince as an amiable but not too smart protagonist -- Ballet princes often suffer from this fate -- Neumeier turns him into a naval officer who plays golf on board and at soldiering with his sailors. Perhaps it was a way to indicate that marriage will end his youthful freedom, but it also suggests same-sex attraction. After all, before going to his wedding night, Edvard engages in a circle dance with his sailors, with his bride (Sarah Van Patten) looking on.
The Prince's world ruled is by decorum, superficiality and constraint. Neumeier presents it straight but, when seen through the eyes of the protagonists --a smart theatrical touch -- it acquires a kind of surreal, almost nightmarish quality. No wonder the Sea Witch (a marvelously sinister Davit Karapetyan in a skull-inspired mask) shows up during the wedding celebration. The problem with this scenario is that Neumeier, who is theatrically so inventive, as a choreographer works with an extremely limited palette. This is particularly evident in his ensemble choreography. These dances do what they have to dramatically but they lack intrinsic interest. They do not stand on their own. He also piles them on top of each other as if he needed to create a nineteenth century ballet extravaganza. They put a drag on the work and, in the process, diminish the Poet and the Mermaid's poignant fate.
"Mermaid's" most interesting addition is the Poet, primarily a character role, superbly interpreted by Guest Artist Hamburg Ballet Principal Riggins. Neumeier here created a complex part in which the Poet/Anderson is both the creator of the story -- constantly checking his book and throwing it away in despair -- and a character in his own narrative. The febrile intensity that Riggins brings to his darting runs and gestural twitches threatens to tear him apart. Putting one hand on his heart, the other on his forehead, he acknowledges the difference between reason and passion but he can't help himself. Finally, he descends -- or rises, depending on your perspective -- into a kind of madness as, again and again, he tries to force Tan onto Helimets. But when he rams the Mermaid into the Wedding Pas de Deux, the resulting trio stumbles into melodrama. Ultimately, it is not clear whether the Poet is trying to save the Prince, the Mermaid or himself. Neumeier, the Romantic, probably would say the ideal over the real.
Flawed as it is, this is a ballet that belongs to Tan. You simply can't take your eyes off her whenever she is on stage, which is for just about all of two and a half hours. She traces her metamorphosis from innocence and youth to ultimate despair with a kind of intensity that approaches pure music. Yes, she has an immensely flexible body that can make her look like a torture victim or squashed insect or disease on Helimet's body but she is equally impressive when wandering Cinderella-like or clowning like Petrouchka. Since Anderson described the Mermaid's feet as hurting "as if walking on needles or sharp knives", I half-expected Neumeier to put her into point shoes after losing her tail. (Somehow inexplicably, she does wear them in the latter part of the ballet) But with her long slender feet naked, Tan looked all the more vulnerable. These also are clearly a ballerina's feet that have felt their share of pain. It's no fault of Tan's, that her Mermaid ultimately tumbles into bathos. Neumeier simply stretched his narrative to the point where it snapped.
Helimets' handsome blond looks and elegant lines made him a good Prince. He dances beautifully these days, and this role gave him an opportunity to show dramatic potential. He plausibly edges toward remembering her in that almost-kiss. But there is also an uncomfortable note of misogyny to his treatment of Tan--kind the way you are with a pet that is fun to have around.
Throughout, SFB dancers performed excellently; if just the choreography had been more involving. Perhaps being drunk wedding guests, squashed into the space of telephone cabin, at least had the charm of novelty. Dores Andre's small solo as one of the bridesmaids showed lovely brio while Frances Chung got a shot at being a (temporarily) unruly wedding guest. A much welcome touch of humor -- serving to introduce Henriette -- was provided by the Nuns' (Elana Altman and Lily Rogers) lesson in proper comportment
Neumeier also signed for costumes and set. His sense for theatrical design is impeccable. What looked like strands of neon light were raised and lowered to create smooth transitions between land and sea. Helimet and Tan's ascent from the bottom of the sea to a beautifully simple beach was made possible by the magic of light. The upside/down boats were amusing little touches even as they created perspectives.
The Theremin (Carolyn Eyck), in conjunction with the violin (Roy Malan) as a leitmotif for the Mermaid was not perhaps exactly original, it was still a nice touch. But overall, Auerbach's score at the most was serviceable; too often it was so overbearing to border the cliche.