“The Little Mermaid”
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
March 28, 2017
by George Jackson
© 2017 by George Jackson
What is the story of this ballet with choreography, staging, set, costumes and light design by John Neumeier? Supposedly the plot is based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen. It hasn’t, though, the clarity of Andersen’s writing but is closer to the shadowy surrealism and mythoscience of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tales and perhaps to La Motte Fouque’s novella “Undine”. Neumerier’s narrative continues to puzzle me but its principal characters are listed in the printed program. Foremost are a Poet and his creation, the Mermaid. Both pine for a handsome Prince who takes their passion lightly as he weds a Princess or plays golf. Also present is a force of nature, the Sea Witch. As choreographer, Neumeier seems intent on spinning his yarn without the use of conventional pantomime. He uses direct action and appears to be concocting a novel dance language.
Photo: Silvia Azzoni as The Little Mermaid. Photo by Holger Badekow.
Neumeier’s new movement is compounded of acrobatics, grotesque character dance, balletic articulations and modern-dance thrust. The ingredients come in different doses for different characters. The Little Mermaid, as long as she is still underwater, appears to have a stiff shot of Martha Graham modernism shaping her motions. There was nothing diminutive about Silvia Azzoni’s forcful delivery of strokes as she seemed to swim about in the depths. Transformed into a land creature with legs, she sagged at first, reminiscent of the newborn insect Novice in Jerome Robbins’s “The Cage”. Acclimating somewhat to solid ground, and persuaded to attack the Prince with a knife, the Mermaid rather resembled Agnes de Mille’s murderous Lizzie Borden in “Fall River Legend”. That though, wasn’t yet the end of this story.
The Poet, until the ballet’s Epilogue, is portrayed as heedless by Lloyd Riggins, looking and behaving like a mad Dr. Drosselmeyer (from “The Nutcracker). Both the Prince (Carsten Jung) and the on-pointe Princess (Carolina Aguero) are glib characters. The fierce Witch is a man (Karen Azatyan). Neumeier deploys Hamburg Ballet’s many dancers as sea creatures, sailors, party guests and so on. Particularly the company’s male ensemble is featured prominently. Neumeier’s new dance brew depicts all these people distinctively. Although recognizable almost instantly as they posed and moved, all remained empty shells. I kept wondering what if anything was inside them. Moreover, the dance language did not develop as dance and quite a few scenes became repetitiously long. Act 1 of this two part ballet lasted 80 minutes.
Yet the staging by Neumeier was deft, particularly the first moments of both acts when it seemed we were watching a film on a flat screen and only gradually did depth materialize. Lera Auerbach’s sensual music, which I’d be curious to hear by itself, was much more than serviceable. After 12 scenes - in the last of which the Prince, married to the Princess, abandons the Mermaid with finality – there is an epilogue. It is very Wagnerian if I’m not misreading it. The Poet kills his creation, the Mermaid, and dies himself. Both are resurrected in an after-life. Unanswered remains the riddle of who the Poet represents – H.C. Andersen or J. Neumeier.
Photo: Silvia Azzoni and Carsten Jung in John Neumeier's "The Little Mermaid." Photo by Holger Badekow.