The Poet stands over his creation... or alter ego?

“The Little Mermaid”
San Francisco Ballet
Friday, March 26, 2010

When most think of the Little Mermaid, a certain perky redhead comes to mind along with perhaps a snappy Jamaican lobster and a volatile French chef.  Unless, of course, you’ve been to Copenhagen, where Den Lille Havefrue (her name in Danish) was born.  In which case, what comes to mind is a rather small and unspectacular statue of the half-fish woman gazing longingly out into the harbor.

On Friday night, San Francisco Ballet offered a new take on the classic tale by the famed Danish poet Hans Christian Anderson that adheres more closely to the decidedly darker original text in a stunning visual production with choreography by John Neumeier, a name not often heard on this side of the pond.

Created in 2005 for – appropriately – the Royal Danish Ballet and dedicated to Queen Margaret II, the story takes an unexpected twist early on when, in the captivating opening scene, the poet himself emerges as a main character of the ballet.  From that point on, it’s unclear whether the narrative is merely flowing from his mind and pen as a passive bystander or whether the adventures are actually happening to him as an active participant.  And its this ambiguity that gives the ballet a surprising psychological and emotional depth.

The Disney version predictably lightens the story quite a bit and the mermaid’s loss of voice allows for silly, playful antics with just the right amount of tension and adventure thrown into the mix before the inevitable happy ending.  What we never get in the animated film is the understanding of just how drastic a deal with the devil was made in the first place or any sense that the risk may not pay off.

Neumeier’s version takes its cue from Anderson, and the young maiden who sells her soul for the chance at love is stripped of her fins and punished with the reality that for her, walking on feet forever feels like walking on glass.

It’s a perfect plot dilemma for a ballet, where grace and lightness on one’s feet is really the whole point.  In ballet, hearts are won en pointe and through pas de deux.  Thus, the image of the young maiden wheel-chair bound on the deck of a cruise ship is particularly poignant.  Robbed of her language to express herself, she has no chance with the handsome naval officer who inspired her transformation.  He instead takes the hand of an elegant school girl who has the advantage of a fierce developpe and a sprite petit allegro.

The Little Mermaid thus becomes a tale about unrequited love, the hopelessness of not getting the one you want because, well, it’s just not meant to be.  And it’s here that the poet’s presence reveals another layer.  Sometimes simply witnessing the action and at other times manipulating the players, there are a few subtle moments when the poet’s affections for the officer come to the surface with a quiet gesture, a small reach, a slight lean forward.

Anderson himself was notoriously tortured by his romantic attractions to men (and women, too) in a society that would not tolerate such behavior.  In the final scene of a ballet that grows heavier and richer with each passing moment, the poet joins the mermaid in the claustrophobic white room in which she is trapped.  Removing his long black coat and top hat, he reveals himself as her double and we finally understand that the impossibility of her love and the pain she nevertheless endured to pursue it might well parallel the poet’s own forbidden desires.

As the two ascend to the stars in a slow series of synchronized gestures, no one is thinking anymore of happy Disney songs and the satisfying partnership that made the whole ordeal worthwhile in that version.  Rather, the pain of happiness withheld and the burden of a life time of solitude reveal themselves and there is no escape  to be found.