"The Little Mermaid"
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
May 1, 2011
by Rita Felciano
Copyright © Rita Felciano, 2011
The return of a popular though not that long-established success about which one has reservations is always a welcome chance to revisit one's perspective of a work of art. So I was looking forward, though with considerable trepidation, to a repeat of John Neumeier's 2005 "The Little Mermaid", created for the Royal Danish Ballet and in 2007 adapted for his own Hamburg Ballet. Last year I regretted that a piece that potentially, had so much going for itself, was not any better than it was. I wish I could say that I had been wrong.
"Mermaid" is a balletomane's dream if we can agree that in a live performance the most important, perhaps the only aspect that counts, is the dancer. Everything else is secondary. In this revival, the company, particularly its leads, performed superbly. Dramatically, physically and emotionally Yuan Yuan Tan -- on stage for just about the whole two hours -- never faltered. From the early frolicking in the sea to her virginal curiosity to the agony and the final apotheosis, she infused Neumeier's choreography with every ounce of emotion that she could call forth. She showed just how great a dancer there is behind that vaunted flexibility and awesome technique. It's no fault of hers that Neumeier couldn't let go, pushing the emotions, particularly the painful ones, dangerously close to the edge of sado-masochism or at least squarely into the arena of melodrama. Tan has the potential for tragedy, Neumeier does not.
As the ultimate outsider Pascal Molat makes his Poet a complex, insecure and yet unmovable-in-his devotion character. Molat, light and airy in his feet, whipping through a turn only to slink into the corner, sometimes looked like a moth that can't stand away from the light. Following on the heels of his first-rate Petrouchka, the French-born dancer is widening and deepening his interpretative range, adding dramatic and emotionally complex roles to his repertoire. I even believed in his (and Tan's) long delayed apotheosis. Helimet's insolent and self-centered Edvard was more of a piece this time around; he shaped beautifully. Rarely has a dolt been seen with such superbly elegant lines. Sarah Van Patten's Henriette did what she could from a basically thankless part.
These excellent performances, however, could not make up for choreography which slinks, slithers and preens on the surface of what is good material. With the exception of those for the mermaids, the ensemble dances for the school girls, sailors, wedding guests and bridesmaids were just too bland. Granted that Neumeier wants us to see how superficial the "real", as opposed to the deeply felt world is, but superficial and generalized choreography is not the way to go. His visual design, however, was imaginative and effective though Lera Auerbach's bombastically operatic score was a misstep.
PBS is filming the current run of "Mermaid" for "Great Performances," with Lloyd Riggins as the Poet.