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San Francisco Ballet Star Shines Under the Sea

The Little Mermaid

March 20, 2010

San Francisco Ballet

“This is for her,” another critic said to me Saturday during the rapturous standing ovation that greeted the U.S. premiere of John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid at the San Francisco Ballet. My colleague was referring to Yuan Yuan Tan, the Chinese-born, exquisitely delicate ballerina, who for more than two hours had let herself be maimed, disfigured, pushed about in a wheelchair, rejected, and humiliated as the titular sea creature in Neumeier’s violent saga. And I believe my colleague was right, and not only because to see Tan surrender her elegance makes for great novelty. Rather, from her dejected stare to her wrenching, grotesquely twisted limbs, this was a performance of absolute commitment, and a career milestone.

But the crowd also gave a rousing cheer for Neumeier’s curtain call, and for good reason. The choreographer studied theater in his native Wisconsin but has conducted his artistic career in Germany for four decades (37 years as director of the Hamburg Ballet). His story ballet spectacles are popular in Europe though new to San Francisco, and The Little Mermaid makes an appealing introduction.

Commissioned by the Royal Danish Ballet in 2005 and revised in 2007, it’s a clever and earnest postmodern retelling. Neumeier begins with the character of Hans Christian Andersen onstage as “the poet” (danced by Hamburg guest artist Lloyd Riggins) watching his beloved Edvard marry; his tear of grief falls into the sea and becomes the mermaid, whom he continues to bring to life on the page (he shadows her through much of the ballet, furiously writing in his little black notebook).

The mermaid falls for a prince who looks strikingly like Edvard (played with boy-toy innocence by Tiit Helimets); redemption for both the mermaid and her creator comes through literary transcendence.

All this is brilliantly staged through Neumeier’s ingenious scenic, lighting, and costume designs, which give the mermaid long Japanese trousers that fan out when her handlers lift her, thus resembling fins. The beach setting she washes up on has surrealist touches (the painted backdrop evokes Magritte), while the underwater atmosphere is particularly entrancing, thanks to undulating lines of neon and a dozen other clever riggings. The camp appeal of Neumeier’s other costumes cannot be overlooked: With his face paint, the Sea Witch (a powerful Davit Karapetyan) could be Gene Simmons from KISS, and his helpers wear black chaps that would fit in at the Folsom Street Fair.

Movement Serves the Drama

Lera Auerbach’s score richly conjures a dark, roiling ocean, with eerily ascending themes and whale-song theremin. The orchestra played beautifully under Music Director Martin West, and the ballet’s corps found the rhythms of the tricky syncopations. Yet Neumeier’s choreography isn’t much concerned with musicality or a distinctive style. He borrows whatever movement serves the larger stage picture, from the Alvin Ailey–like deep pliés and tilted extensions of the undersea creatures, to elements of Frederick Ashton’s Ondine in the mermaid’s pretransformation frolics, to hints of Mats Ek in the circusy bridesmaid dances.

I have no objection to choreography that is more about dance as storytelling than style (and I can’t help thinking how much influence Neumeier must have had on the creator of the now-famous “all-male” Swan Lake, Matthew Bourne). But I do wonder if, once the awe at the sets and costumes and the shock of Tan’s performance wear off, viewers will feel less forgiving toward the turgid storyline.

Be warned: Act 1 of this ballet is more than an hour long, and Act 2 nearly as endless; it feels long, because the emotional relationships among the characters really don’t change or develop. The prince is a chummy playboy oblivious to the mermaid’s torture (one nice touch here is the joking “got your nose!” gesture Neumeier has Edvard/the Prince make, first to the poet and later to the mermaid). Any story arc here is more of a flat line as we watch the mermaid suffer through one wedding dance after another. The Princess, too, simply carries on, tra-la-la. Sarah Van Patten, the company’s finest actress, gave an enthusiastic interpretation of that one-note character on Saturday; she will dance the mermaid in later performances, alternating with Tan. She will be a quite different mermaid, to be sure; and if she’s as committed as Tan, the standing ovations for a ballet that would have been more dramatically potent at half the length are likely to continue.

Rachel Howard is the former dance correspondent of The San Francisco Chronicle. She has written on dance in the Bay Area for the last ten years, and her writing has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Dance Magazine. Her Web site is


Well said, stated, opined, and written Rachel!

Thank you,

I was privileged to be there opening night, and the first thing to be said is that The Little Mermaid is a triumph. The second thing, it is unlike any ballet ever presented by the San Francisco Ballet. Hat’s off to Artistic Director Helgi Tommasson for bringing it to San Francisco. It is a theatrical experience that can’t really be compared to other full length ballets.

From the moment it begins you know something is different; there is laughter from the ballerinas, unabashed, girlish, almost raucous. There is a wedding party; we are on the deck of a cruise ship and beginning a voyage that will hold you spellbound for the next 74 minutes. And that’s just the first act. The audacity of an unheard of 74 minute first act for a ballet certainly puts us on notice that something is out of the ordinary, and we need to let go of our preconceptions.

And everything is there! I was on the edge of my seat for the entire time just wanting to drink it all in: the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the choreography, and the dancing, especially the dancing. It was an embarrassment of riches. (Forgive me if I seem to be gushing, but no one aside from a carping critic could think otherwise.) The transformation of the action from the deck of the ship to under the waves and then onto to the shore was mesmerizing. It was like a mystery where you can’t wait to see what will happen next.

And as sad and emotionally difficult as The Little Mermaid is, there is comedy! The dancing sailors, some naked to the waste, also give voice and are quite hilarious. Tiit Helimets revealed a talent for burlesque and a comic timing that quite floored me; he was laugh-out-loud funny. The two nuns twittering about the stage with their covey of school girls are an absolute delight. The contrast between the brightly lit scenes on the ship and the shore, and the beautiful blue depths of the undersea ballet make for a varied and visually interesting time, as well as providing the occasion for allegory and drama on many different levels.

Yuan Yuan Tan, in the performance of a lifetime, gave expression to a searing vulnerability as the Mermaid who chooses to change her world for love of the Prince. Her struggle to come to awareness of, and find, her feet, in this new life out of water was infinitely touching; all the more so in contrast to her former serene and ethereal grace in the sea. John Neumeier was so moved by her performance he hugged her during the curtain calls

In the opening night Meet the Artist interview with Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, he perceptively observed that this ballet was about transitions. Transitions and transformations are the key to understanding The Little Mermaid.

An interesting sidelight is the complete absence of Lorena Feijoo in the casting. Feijoo figured prominently in both the program notes and the website as one of the three ballerinas who would portray the little mermaid. There has been no mention of what might have prevented her dancing even a single night as either the mermaid or the princess. Whatever the reason, she must be understandably disappointed.

Some reviewers have had problems with the length of this ballet, but I must beg to differ. There is so much to engage the senses and such an abundance of dancing throughout it is a pure joy and never silly or repetitious. You might as well complain, “Oh, do we really need another line of swans? Didn’t we see that earlier?”

If you love ballet you will love this production. With endlessly varied interchanges of ensemble, solo, pas de deux and pas de trios figures, alternating between en point, barefoot, classical and contemporary, The Little Mermaid is daring in its conception, clever, creative and brilliantly realized. Don’t miss it.