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 offÂ almost like a movie, with sounds of laughter and talking in the excited scene of wedding preparations amidst giggling bridesmaids and congratulatory groomsmen. Â 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.
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.Â 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.
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.