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San Francisco Ballet's "The Little Mermaid"

"The Little Mermaid" Returns

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San Francisco Ballet's

Yuan Yuan Tan delivers a heart-wrenching performance as the little mermaid.

Erik Tomasson

After its U.S. premiere last season drew sell-out crowds and standing ovations, San Francisco Ballet's The Little Mermaid is returning in 2011, from April 30 through May 8 only. The adaptation of the fairy tale is sharp, edgy and mesmerizing; against it, Swan Lake seems only mildly tragic. The Little Mermaid is a must-see for any adults who like dance or theater.

The John Neumeier masterpiece is not kiddie fare, though; it's the polar opposite of Disney’s animated movie. Here the mermaid rescues a prince and falls for him, so much so that she'll trade her fish features for human legs so she can live on terra firma. But Neumeier, the director of Hamburg Ballet, doesn't allow her a happily-ever-after destiny.

Yuan Yuan Tan's Fragile Mermaid
Yuan Yuan Tan is a spectacular and riveting mermaid, her lithe body and limbs arching and stretching like a contortionist’s. Her eyes convey everything from childlike marvel at new discoveries to the anguish of rejection.

Literally and brutally stripped of her fish skin, Tan is vulnerable, both physically and psychologically. As if hit by a stun gun, she is initially a dazed, listless clump relegated to a wheelchair.

Tan’s lean frame makes her appear even more fragile and helpless. She tries to assimilate with humans but is treated as a child at best and a freak at worst.

Composer Lera Auerbach’s score is ominous and uneasy, laden with percussion, brass and dissonance. An occasional tolling bell and siren-like whine reinforce the doom and sadness. Even the music of a wedding dance is piercing and heavy.

Creating The Little Mermaid

Neumeier, who masterminded the choreography, costumes, scenes and lighting, was hired by the Royal Danish Ballet to create Mermaid as a tribute to the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth.

After receiving the commission, Neumeier and the Hamburg Ballet were touring in Asia, where he found many inspirations that wound up in the 2005 world premiere of Mermaid. The costumes and make-up of the sea witch (played by a powerful Davit Karapetyan) and the mermaids borrow from Noh theater and traditional Balinese outfits. The little mermaid’s arm and hand movements are reminiscent of classical Balinese and Thai dance.

Mermaid is more theater than ballet; the choreography is more gymnastic and athletic than balletic. It’s compelling, intense and unforgettable.

Leave the kids at home. Bring binocs or opera glasses so you can see the dancers’ facial expressions, which play a more significant role here than in most ballets. And hurry to catch The Little Mermaid before it disappears again.

San Francisco Ballet’s The Little Mermaid
April 30-May 8, 2011
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness at Grove.
Click here for ticket ordering or ticketing information, or call (415)865-2000.

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