San Francisco Ballet's 'The Little Mermaid' Dives into Dark Waters

Erik Tomasson/Courtesy

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San Francisco Ballet premiered "The Little Mermaid", a new full-length ballet with choreography by John Neumeier, at The War Memorial Opera House last weekend. But don't be fooled by its fairytale title. With angular sets, suspended neon waves and a dissonant music score, Neumeier's dark adaptation of Anderson's original fable proves to be nothing like its Disney counterpart.

The ballet begins in an underwater other world where a family of mermaids glide across the stage-hips leading-as if pushing through waves. Yuan Yuan Tan-performing the title role of the Little Mermaid-moves her arms through carefully articulated gestures and falls into backbends with supernatural flexibility. Her long, silk pants add fluidity to her movement as they trail behind her and spread out like fins.

Yet while the dancers of San Francisco Ballet exhibit breathtaking technical virtuosity and command the stage with charismatic personality, the ballet at times feels overly bleak. We begin with the Little Mermaid, in her Edenic element, and yet the dim lighting not only creates a somber atmosphere but also makes it difficult to distinguish the dancers in the back. Under hues of dark blue the Mermaid Sisters look more like eerie ghosts than mythical sea creatures.

In the first underwater scene, three men portray Magic Shadows. By carrying the Little Mermaid they allow her to "swim" above the sea floor. Unfortunately, their presence draws attention to the fact that this Mermaid can't actually swim. Dressed in long black skirts and black vests the three men look like gloomy shadows lurking in the water.

A lighter first act would have added a more powerful contrast to the harsh reality the Mermaid must face in the second act. Instead, darkness permeates the entirety of the ballet. The dissonant music score-composed by Lera Auerbach-complete with crashing cymbals, wailing oboes and haunting violin parts, meets the dancers fluid movement with overbearing severity.

And while Neumeier's movement style incorporates edgy angular movement with circular motion in beautifully inventive ways, he often makes it difficult for the audience to focus on the aesthetic quality of his choreography. After the Prince (Tiit Helimets) and the Little Mermaid dance for the first time, the Sea Witch (Davit Karapetyan) enters and a turbulent sea storm erupts. The stage becomes overloaded with a flurry of activity and the chaos of too many dancers moving in different directions undermines Neumeier's innovative movement style.

The ballet does have its sparkling moments. The way in which Yuan Yuan Tan commits to the emotional and psychological personality of her character proves to be the most spectacular aspect of the ballet. After the Sea Witch strips Tan of her silk tail, she stands on violently shaking legs and portrays unbearable pain with powerful emotion. Like a baby bird breaking out of its shell Tan walks upon her new legs with an awkward innocence. And when she finally realizes the prince will never return her love, her movement-marked by fragmented stumbles and disjointed swaying-reveals a tragic vulnerability.

Turning a classic children's fable into an adult saga has both its advantages and disadvantages. Beautiful dancers notwithstanding, San Francisco Ballet's "The Little Mermaid" delves into dark depths and comes uncomfortably close to drowning.

Go under the sea with Katie at [email protected]

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