Monthly Archives: March 2010

Review: 2010 San Francisco Ballet’s The Little Mermaid

Yuan Yuan Tan in Neumeier's The Little Mermaid. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet presented the U.S. premiere of John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid starting last weekend. Largely marketed as an adult story not intended for children, this production was an abstract psychodrama using the familiar tale of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid as a launching point. Although closer to the original Andersen tale than the more ubiquitous Disney version, the Andersen tale still serves as a rather distant inspiration, as the emotions of unrequited love and character development are more salient features than storytelling plot points. The strangely hypnotic world is also created by the stunning atonal music by Lera Auerbach, with sounds coming from the orchestra pit that sounded eerily human, in wordless sighs and groans.

Neumeier’s strength as a choreographer lies in his ability to take the abstract thematic elements of the story and to address it creatively. Set in a cinematic framework, the story starts off almost like a movie, with sounds of laughter and talking in the excited scene of wedding preparations amidst giggling bridesmaids and congratulatory groomsmen.  But from there, the story takes unexpected twists and turns, as the ocean grows from a tear dropping from the face of a forlorn male bystander (named “The Poet”, danced with veiled vulnerability and assurance by Damian Smith), who creates the little mermaid as a vessel of his unrequited love for the prince, a warmly oblivious and ever elegant Tiit Helimets. An underwater world is revealed, where movements are inflected with Asian influences – think Japanese butoh and Balinese dance, with the rippling arms and attention and detail in the wrists and fingers as free as the ocean. Time warps and bends, with mermaid sisters and a corps called “the sea” creating a slow and casual alien world.

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

In stark contrast is the world on land, harshly lit and unsympathetic. Characterized by conformity in boisterous unified group dances, people are such strange creatures, breaking out into dance and breaking out a golf club and golfing at random moments. Humans are seen from the viewpoint of the little mermaid, curiously interesting yet odd. Filled with non sequiturs often with a violent edge, the world of humans is depicted as an absurdist tragic comedy. In the midst of this, the little mermaid’s innocence in her love for the prince and the wholeheartedness of her devotion is heartbreaking, a beacon of humanity in this exotic and strange world.

Neumeier states that his story is inspired by the little mermaid’s love that transcends boundaries. Yet it’s hard to take her love for the prince seriously, as she falls in love with him with such innocence and later, determination. Rather than a love story, this ballet to me was more of a cautionary tale of tragedy. The audience is swept up by the pilgrimage of the little mermaid, a slow transformation from innocent girl leading to the psychological climax of her final solo, a dance of determination, surrender, and the realization of being trapped by her own desires. Principal Yuan Yuan Tan portrays the many facest of the role of the little mermaid with ferocity and the stage presence of an unassuming star. The dress that she once desired to wear after seeing the prince fall in love with a princess wearing the same dress, becomes constricting. The life on land she once desired becomes instruments of her own undoing, with the Sea Witch who gave her legs merely an instrument of what she thought she wanted. This dance represents both her psychological unraveling as well as her maturity in acceptance of her fate and the consequences of her decisions. For the first time, instead of being a victim of the ebb and flow of life, she learns to stand on her own two legs and takes authority of her life into her own hands.

Yuan Yuan Tan in Neumeier's The Little Mermaid. © Erik Tomasson

This monumental ballet has lofty goals, encompassing a large spectrum of emotions and psychological and dramatic themes in the framework of a familiar timeless story. The overall impression is a lot to take in at once, yet it’s also a world that’s easy to get lost in. Neumeier’s cinematic tale of The Little Mermaid is buried in abstraction and swirling in emotion and images, nonsensical yet urgent, a sentiment that can’t be put into words.

San Francisco Ballet’s website.

Preview: John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid with the San Francisco Ballet

San Francisco Ballet’s The Little Mermaid arrived with a bang this past weekend. Choreographed by John Neumeier with music by Lera Auerbach, this production promises to be a visual feast of dramatic storytelling. This story is based more on the original Hans Christian Andersen story, rather than the more child-friendly Disney version. In an interview with the SF Chronicle, John Neumeier responds to a question regarding dance and drama:

Because I don’t think dance is intellectual. It’s more related to the experience of dreams than actuality. I believe you don’t understand a ballet; you have an experience of it.

I’m not sure I agree with his statement 100% – I agree that any art has to be experienced rather than thought through, but there’s always room for intellectual thought. For me, understanding and logical flow aids the process of emotional fulfillment.

The interview also states that the dance movement in this production is inspired by Balinese dance.

For more information, click here.

Review: 2010 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 4

San Francisco Ballet in Fokine's Petrouchka. © Erik Tomasson

We don’t see a lot of Fokine around the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. And with Program 4, Michael Fokine’s Petrouchka was a brave yet intelligent choice that took risks in exposing SF audiences to something more unfamiliar. It’s a stark story of tyranny and cruelty in the form of three life size puppets, working as slave entertainers for a demanding master at a public festival. The company’s famous extensions were nowhere to be seen onstage, yet the meticulous details was gripping in the way that every gesture served the dramatic elements of the story. It truly was, as the program notes said, a play without words and maybe not what people had expected to see. Hunched concave shoulders and robotic angles in the arms and legs belied a sense of coerced duty in constant fear and hopelessness. The classic tragic hero Petrouchka’s doomed demise is a depressing message to those whose fatal flaw is to dare to hope, in the form of love for a fellow doll, the Ballerina. His demise is difficult to watch, and the truth of oppression is only made easier when the victim is dehumanized and made to believe that Petrouchka is only a doll, not a human being. Even the colorful scenery is garish and mocking, as is the score by Stravinsky in its mocking cheer and cacophony that grates on the ears. Petrouchka is a production that premiered in 1911, but its cynical truth rings true with modern times.

Taras Domitro was unrecognizable as Petrouchka, and a promising sign of growth as an artist where he was still able to hold the stage without his famous jumps or extensions. Elizabeth Miner was a doll without a hair out of place, and nobody batted an eye when the devil himself (danced by Martyn Garside) appeared in the bizarre festivities. The audience was more reticent than usual, but it was a thought-provoking dramatic piece, gripping in its details.

Although the stage was crowded with scenery and dancers and supers, the dancers seemed to fill the stage more in the empty set of Forsythe’s abstract in the middle, somewhat elevated, a piece that is the most polar opposite of Petrouchka that you could possibly get. In this crowded stage where there’s no choreographed movement to fill the stage, the atmosphere was curiously static in what should have been a bustling festival. It’s a testament to the strengths and weaknesses of the company, and this can only improved by tackling more pieces like Petrouchka.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Anthony Spaulding in Possokhov's Diving into the Lilacs. © Erik Tomasson

The rest of the program was filled with two pieces that played last year, and there were revelations to be made in a second look. In Possohkov’s Diving Into the Lilacs which premiered last year, I was reminded at how pretty this ballet is. Steeped in nostalgia and aching beauty, its imagery is vivid yet nonspecific, and its impact as effervescent as a fast fading memory.

Its strength lies in the fact that the choreographer-in-residence knows his company very very well – the dancers are highlighted to the best of their abilities. Frances Chung and Hansuke Yamamoto filled every moment in time and space to the fullest, Chung in her contrasts between quick and precise footwork and sweeping, liquid lines. Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin didn’t have the sculptural elegance of Tan and Spaulding in last year’s cast, but infused a lighter perfume to their delicately furious duet.

Frances Chung in Forsythe's in the middle, somewhat elevated. © Erik Tomasson

The evening ended with a bang with Forsythe’s in the middle, somewhat elevated in a heartpounding show of competitive artistry. Set to the turbulent music by Thom Willems on a bare stage, the focus is on the dancers and their movements as awe-inspiring as Olympic athletes, as they push to the limits of physicality. The dancers brought out different aspects in the geometric movements. Sarah Van Patten was a preening cat that attacked suddenly with steely precision. Garen Scribner had the best instincts on stage, from his weightless jumps to popping angles in his neck and limbs. Frances Chung made the audience gasp as she burst from the wings in a series of knife-like splits. Kristin Long and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba danced the final pas de deux, dancing with intentional ferocity. Long was a dynamo powerhouse, so different in style with Sofiane Sylve in the other cast who dances with more spontaneity and careless glamor and authority. With Long and Vilanoba, the volume was amped to the max, and it was a wonder to watch.

San Francisco Ballet