Underneath the sea

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 23, 2010
Share this Post:

Standees were thick on the Opera House rail for the opening night of The Little Mermaid, San Francisco Ballet's highly-anticipated super-production for this year. It is the Western Hemisphere premiere of the ballet, which was created in 2005 for the 200th birthday of Hans Christian Andersen (who, of course, wrote the story) for the Royal Danish Ballet's new opera house in Copenhagen harbor, and it is in every way a spectacle designed to exploit the illusions creatable on an opera house stage.

The amazing look of this ballet comes from the same mind as the choreography: John Neumeier, the American-born choreographer who has led the Hamburg Ballet for several decades now. He uses all levels of the stage for his scenes at sea.  The opening tableau, for example, occurs onboard ship, but it's set maybe 20 feet above the floor of the stage, floating in a black surround; the scene change from underwater to dry land (when the mermaid rescued the prince from drowning and brought him up to shore) literally took my breath away. Also Neumeier's are the dazzling costumes, both for the fantastic sea-creatures and for the high-society earthlings at the Palace, which are a fashion parade of considerable merit in their own right. The music, which has shimmering textures and many terrific effects, is alas completely uninteresting except that it sets up every mood exactly as Neumeier must have specified.

Rehearsal time has been lavished on this production, and levels of detail have been combed through in ways other ballets just wish they'd seen. The effect is so overwhelming that I stood and cheered with the crowd – the entire floor of the orchestra was standing – even though I had not enjoyed it.

You should see it and decide for yourself. It would be hard to enjoy seeing such suffering (and even worse, such social awkwardness) as the mermaid's while she pursues the Prince, who does not love her, scene after scene, even begging for his love as a bridesmaid at his wedding. (He marries the girl who found him on the beach and brought him back to consciousness, touchingly danced by Sarah van Patten.)

The ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan gave a fabulous performance as the mermaid. At all times, she carried the show (brilliantly supported by Tiit Helimets, the golden-god Estonian premier danseur who played the Prince). But Tan's talent is like Meryl Streep's, which leaves me cold though in awe of the craft (and grateful for it), that moment-by-moment application of mind to the emerging needs of creating a character. Tan's swimminess as a sea-creature was glorious, her fascination and alarm with the beautiful Prince as she realized he was drowning and that it was up to her to save him and she could touch him in any way necessary were completely absorbing, but as she entered the intoxication of obsession with him and willingness to do anything to be with him herself, and undergo the horrible dark magic that split her legs and gave her feet, I was already getting creeped out – not just by the sea-witch, whose bald head and jagged tattoos make him look like a dungeon-master, and by the violence of the music accompanying the scene, but also by her infatuation, which was starting to look druggy and stupid, and also to evoke the misery of my own adolescence, surrounded by guys I could not approach. I found myself thinking this was like masturbation, where you force people in fantasy to do things they would not do in life, and you hate yourself for it.

I can't blame Tan. Her most enchanting moments were the discovery of her legs (and Tan can do amazing things with her legs), and the very close of the ballet, in which she and the poet who has invented her are surrounded by stars and enter the realms of immortality, as the whole stage-floor floats upward, bearing her into Paradise.

It will be worth it to see the ballet with its second-cast ballerina, Sarah van Patten, whose talent is like Ginger Rogers' – she may not be as unearthly a creature to start with, but her humanity is likely to be more poignant, which would alter the emotional impact of the ballet completely.

The orchestra played thrillingly under Martin West (with Carolyn Eyck on theremin); standouts in the huge cast were Davit Karapetyan as the Sea Witch, and the guest artist Lloyd Riggins, who came with Neumeier from Hamburg to help stage the ballet, and who danced the role of the Poet on opening night with classical precision and Romantic agony. The corps and soloists danced at a superb level.

The run has had a huge pre-sale, tickets are already scarce. Last show is this Sunday.