All kinds of gay heartbreak

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday May 3, 2011
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San Francisco Ballet in John Neumeier's <i>The Little<br>Mermaid.</i> (Photo: Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet in John Neumeier's The Little
(Photo: Erik Tomasson)

Gay liberation has come a long way. When it's just an accident of scheduling that two shows the same weekend �" one at a major avant-garde theater, and the other at the Opera House �" each takes as its theme the suffering forced upon queers by a heartless society, we've arrived where public opinion is very open to listening to our version of things. Maybe it's possible to give two cheers for these shows, but not three.

San Francisco Ballet's The Little Mermaid, in John Neumeier's visionary staging, includes the back-story (unmentioned by Disney) that the mermaid's unrequited love for a human mirrors and embodies the heartache of its author, Hans Christian Andersen, who was queer like us, and loved an unattainable straight guy. "The Poet" is a long-suffering character in the show. He is onstage almost as much as the Mermaid herself; it's his tears, fallen into the sea, that gave birth to her, and in the apotheosis at the end, the two of them rise together into the heaven of those whose memory we will not let die. Gay money (including the Bob Ross Foundation) is behind both the stage production and the film crews who've recorded it this past week for future broadcast on PBS.

Can there be anyone who does not know the story? "A mermaid princess makes a Faustian bargain [I'm quoting the Disney synopsis] with an unscrupulous seahag in order to meet a human prince on land." In Neumeier's version, which is nearly the equal of Disney's in its spectacular qualities, she rescues him from drowning, falling in love with him as she winds round him, drawing him to safety, only to lose him when she cannot follow him back into the world above ground, where it turns out he's just as good-looking as he was but trivial, surrounded by a heartless society, and in love with a conventional girl.

Neumeier, director of the Ballet in Hamburg, Germany, has created this spectacle on a Wagnerian scale. Everything about the look of Mermaid is his design. The costumes, lighting, sets, scenic effects �" which are all first-rate, indeed astounding �" all serve his vision, as does the music, which has textures, dynamics, sonorities to suit every need (though it's harmonically banal). The underwater scenes are a triumph of swimminess, and the transitions to dry land have to be seen to be believed. He stages several scenes in the middle of the stage-picture, 20 feet above the floor of the stage, in white-neon-outlined boxes that appear like pop-up windows on your computer screen.

There are two drawbacks to my admiration of the ballet. The movement is for the most merely decorative and does not build an overall rhythmic structure. Yes, the ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan's arms swim in gorgeous undulations, and the three men in black who manipulate her body as if she were a Bunraku puppet sweep her around the stage in some charming curves; yes, the scene in which she discovers her legs is charming; yes, the sailor dances are fun; yes, the dancers have built characters for themselves, and look like they relish their chance to add human touches to their dancing. But it doesn't pay off for us. Every scene goes on too long, like a Warhol movie.

The more disturbing thing is the grinding misery of the Poet and the Mermaid. This ballet may do for us what Uncle Tom's Cabin did for African Americans. Thanks, but maybe no thanks. Yes, it feels good to have injustice exposed, and really good to have the society we live in take the side of queers �" but the feelings depicted in The Little Mermaid make me queasy. It's more than I can endure to see the mermaid cringe for 55 minutes. Her shoulders hunch, her supplicating neck looks broken in its curve; the pleading eyes, the abject way she lunges at the Prince in his wedding procession reminded me, yes, of some of the worst moments of my life in high school. But the way she persisted in loving a rather trivial guy who actually loved someone else began to look predatory and foolish, and I couldn't abide it.

The dancers give it their all. From Tan on down, everyone was superb: Tiit Helimets and Sarah Van Patten as the royal couple, Pascal Molat as the Poet, Davit Karapetyan as the Sea Witch, all the Mer-folk, the sailors (especially Matthew Stewart and James Sofranko), Luke Willis, Courtney Elizabeth and Pauli Magierek as socialites, the darling bridesmaids.

You may feel otherwise, and you should see it. This is a "really big show," very ambitious piece of theater of a kind we do not often see. It will be very interesting to see how Mermaid looks on TV. Editing, pacing, framing of the imagery may change things drastically.

Secret history

Meanwhile across town at Theatre Artaud, the brilliant transgender dancer/poet/activist Sean Dorsey showed a new piece, The Secret History of Love, about the social worlds and the private hopes and fears of queers looking to find someone to love. It's a suite of dances arranged chronologically around Prohibition-era speakeasies, 60s Tenderloin queer bars, and Craigslist.

Dorsey's first danced-short-stories a few years ago were the greatest thing since 29 Effeminate Gestures. He can "do" awkward adolescent guy better than anybody, and awkward girl equally well.  He's a highly gifted mime, writer, dancer, maker of dances, and maker of community.

The trend of his work is, alas, toward sentimental history.  The strongest dance was a cabaret number to "Fever," sung with panache by Shawna Virago, featuring splayed legs and other  lascivious poses by a quartet of guys on bent-wood cafe chairs. Peggy Lee's uncredited music was the best of the whole evening, and the only music that had enough rhythmic interest to require dancing.

Dorsey has an almost fatal facility as a writer. Much of the dancing is gestural, acutely observed tics and twitches belonging to people awkwardly trying to get a date. One can watch a lot of this, set to his monologues drawn from GLBT diaries, letters, news, and oral histories, but after a while the absence of large rhythmic organization makes it lose its snap. And there's the problem that afflicts all politically correct re-imaginings of history: you imagine an unjust situation, then supply all the events that could make a story that pushes the suffering to the front. But what must have happened is a far cry from the real thing. It just doesn't ring true.

The four excellent dancers were Brian Fisher, Nol Simonse, Dorsey himself, and Juan de la Rosa.