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The Little Mermaid

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The Little Mermaid

Yuan Yuan Tan as the lead role in San Francisco Ballet's production of "The Little Mermaid."

Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet’s 14-week at-home season seems so fleeting that should you blink, you might miss a program. If you cat-nap, you may well miss the entire run.

Of the eight programs in the 2010 season, however, the one launching this weekend is probably the biggest eye-opener. The US premiere of a full-length ballet based on the children’s fable The Little Mermaid promises to be a visual feast, unusual in its choreography, emotion-laden and very grown-up in its messages.

San Francisco Ballet is already half-way through its 77th season, which started in late January with Swan Lake and ends in early May with Romeo and Juliet. Each program is performed only seven or nine times. From May to November, the troupe rests up, tours out of town and returns to learn and rehearse the next season's repertoire.

On Saturday, March 20, 2010, SF Ballet performs the U.S. debut of The Little Mermaid by John Neumeier, the prolific Hamburg Ballet Director known for his theatrical ballets. Neumeier created not only the Mermaid choreography but also the costumes and stage sets. In SF Ballet’s program notes, Helgi Tomasson, who this year is celebrating his 25th anniversary as the company's artistic director, calls Mermaid a “very dramatic piece, very emotional,” and “visually stunning.”

“It is very different from anything we have done here before,“ Tomasson said in a San Francisco Chronicle article.

Neumeier created Mermaid for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2005, to honor the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth. An American who majored in English lit and theater before moving to Germany to dance, Neumeier has composed nearly 140 ballets, including Nijinsky, A Streetcar Named Desire, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“The job of a choreographer is not to put steps together,” Neumeier has told SF Ballet. “It is to create worlds.” For Mermaid’s underwater and on-land worlds, that meant playing with light, putting the mermaid in a style of pants worn by Noh actors in Japan and tinkering with facial expressions to convey emotions just right. For particular non-classical movements that Neumeier designed, terms such as “attitude” and “grand jete” had to be tossed aside in favor of evocative code names like “fried egg” and “scarecrow.”

Then there’s the story. It’s nothing like Disney’s version of the Andersen classic, but more like a deep, multilayered mine worthy of a college thesis.

According to SF Ballet’s program notes, a poet--both the narrator of and a character in the story--is on a voyage and is depressed about the impending wedding of his best friend (and love interest). His friend looks very much like the ship’s captain, a prince, who is swimming overboard when a storm whips up. The mermaid saves the prince and deposits him ashore. When he wakes up, the prince believes that a princess-passer-by is his rescuer, and the two royals fall in love.

Also in love with the prince is the mermaid. She is desperate to become a human and thus allows the Sea Witch to exchange her tail for legs.

But walking is tortuous. And, confronted with the prince and princess’ engagement, the mermaid finds herself tormented, physically and psychologically, in the world she’d so much wanted.

Unrequited love. Complete sacrifice. Sad parallels among the poet, the mermaid and Andersen’s own life. As SF Ballet notes, its production of Mermaid “focuses on the deeper, mature themes of the original story…and is not recommended for younger children.”

San Francisco Ballet’s The Little Mermaid
Performances March 20, 21 and 23-28, 2010.
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness at Grove.
For tickets, go to http://www.sfballet.org/performancestickets/buytickets.asp or call (415)865-2000.

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