Review: 2011 John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid

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

San Francisco Ballet’s production of John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid closed out this season with plenty of spectacle and drama. This production is a production with cinematic scope and ambition. The staging elements of the scenic, costume, and lighting design, also by John Neumeier, is full of clean lines and a modern sensibility sure to be pleasing on the TV screen as well (as it will be filmed live this week for public TV and DVD release).

The plot takes creative license from the original Andersen tale, reflecting an additional character, The Poet, inspired by Andersen himself and the story of unrequited romance in his life with the Edvard/The Prince character. This element of the story is both ingenious yet easily confusing for audience members – at the bar, I was stopped by two women who asked me what I knew about the Poet character and who he was.

Neumeier’s choreography creates a world for the audience to get lost in, both the paradise underwater world of the little mermaid’s home, as well as the alien world of the humans on land. All the elements of this production meets in the middle to create these wonderfully weird worlds, including the haunting score by Lera Auerbach. The choreography incorporates movements inflected by East Asian influences (Japanese and Balinese) that look particularly alien to the humans on land, further emphasizing the “fish out of water” state of the little mermaid amongst humans. The created worlds are gorgeous but a bit empty. The visually overwhelming nature of the choreography appears to delve in such detail in describing the worlds that it’s difficult to tell which elements are relevant. It’s the dance equivalent of a novel describing a scene in such detail, you wonder if the three page description of the rocks and stones on the ground are an important part of the plot. For example, a group dances in the back, and I often wondered why. The choreography also lags a bit, particularly in the first act. The absurdist comedic element of the human world is random and puzzling; aside from highlighting how alien the world on land must appear to the mermaid, this element repeats over and over again to a confusing end.

Still there is no doubt that this production is visually stunning and awe-inspiring, and it’s easy to get sucked in. The cast today was incredibly dynamic, with Sarah Van Patten in the lead role as The Little Mermaid. Her portrayal is one of wonder, and the audience experiences with her the silent horror and disappointment of loving someone who didn’t love her back. Her portrayal of innocence is heart breaking. The Poet was danced with lyricism and heart by Pascal Molat, in a piercing portrayal of a man ignored and unseen. Pierre-Francois Vilanoba was a handsome Edvard, a blissfully happy and playful Prince and a supportive partner for both Henriette/The Princess (Vanessa Zahorian) and Van Patten. Jaime Garcia Castilla debuted as the Sea Witch today with expressive lines and high voltage intensity. His scene with Van Patten as he’s turning her fins into legs was particularly electrifying.

Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid continues this week through May 8. Click here for more information. I would also like to reiterate that this production contain mature themes and is not for children. I saw quite a number of children there, and if you expect to see Ariel, you will be highly disappointed.

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