New story ballets that revisit children’s literature or fairy tales have been plentiful in Southern California dance venues recently. The Preljocaj Ballet Snow White, National Ballet of Canada Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the Ballet de Monte Carlo Cinderella have all played here during the last year. Add to those John Neumeier’s production of The Little Mermaid for Hamburg Ballet (2007) which wrapped up performances at Segerstrom Center for the Arts this past weekend. His vision for the story exists in a different realm of re-creation altogether but it shares an affinity with the dark core and emotionally disturbing qualities of Preljocaj’s Snow White. But Neumeier’s ballet is even further out on a limb, so much so that the story is really unrecognizable save only as a kind of pictorial gloss. It is also a mighty tour de force of theatrical invention and imagination counterweighted by an intensely disturbing and emotionally wrenching performance by Silvia Azzoni in the title role.
The central addition to the story is the character of the Poet (Lloyd Riggins), a portrait of Hans Christian Andersen himself. The poet longs for an absent friend; that longing is transformed into the mermaid when he falls overboard. In her own search for love beyond her sea kingdom she is violently stripped of her tail by the Sea Witch and banished to seek her destiny among humans. Ultimately she misses her chance at redemption through love. The ballet finishes with a brief epilogue in which she and the poet rise above the stage into a night sky. Their island is embedded with fallen stars. They are not so much transported to a new realm as united in a permanent neverland of absence. The tableau is bleak, but beautifully so.
Neumeier is no stranger to big tales with dark endings. He has created dance versions of Death in Venice, Lady of the Camellias, The Seagull, Othello, and Peer Gynt to name a few. Perhaps more than any other choreographer, he believes in a dance and acting amalgam as the ultimate tool of choreographic of expression. Neumeier abandons the often flat mime of classical dance and replaces it with a rich vocabulary of gesture, fascial expression and improvisational movement. When those moments of pure dancing finally arrive they show up in high relief to much of the ballet’s intensely acted drama. Those moments are carried primarily by the company’s gallant corps men who looked terrific in their big ensemble sections. Neumeier proves an equal opportunity borrower in cribbing elements from the three major Japanese theatrical genres, Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku. He makes effective use of the handlers dressed in black for the Act I pas de deux as they sail The Little Mermaid through airborne lifts or tow her using the over long pants that double as her tail. Not unexpectedly, elegant floating arm getures and expressive upper body movements prevail.
Carsten Jung her partner plays two roles; one Edvard, the poet’s absent friend and the other a Prince and Sea Captain.The nesting characters felt like the weakest, and at times, the most distracting, aspect of Neumeier’s layered story. But Jung does a masterful job in differentiating the two roles. He plays the upper class Captain and Prince with aloof high spirits and extroversion, but digs in with wounding psychological and emotional depth as Edvard. Less convincing was the character of the Sea Witch. His costuming and make up, inspired by Japanese Kabuki Theater, lacked resonance for a tale steeped in European values. The role was danced with bounding physicality by Alexandre Riabko.
Neumeier himself has created all of the theatrical elements for this production. Set as a turn of the century story, it has vivid, sometimes bizarre, costuming, and startling scenic design. Adventurous lighting using optical tubing helps create the underwater scenes. The sets are expansive and complex. The design elements in some ways feel more akin to the world of opera where excess is more often than not the norm. Lera Auerbach, a pianist and composer with a broad list of credits in all genres of contemporary music, composed the score. It seems a perfect mirror for Neumeier’s work. In it are references to Stravinsky, Beethoven and even whale songs. Some of the music for the final dance scene on board the ship acknowledged the spirit of Prokofiev’s careening music from Cinderella. It is a major achievement for a ballet score. It was unfortunately heard via recording for these performances.
It remains to be seen whether anyone would be able to make his way through Neumeier’s detailed story without a synopsis. The psychological detail and enlarged story can feel wilfully confounding. The important distillation is the world of phantom connection and longing which ultimately engulfs the central trio of characters, Edvard, the Poet and the Little Mermaid. Silvia Azzoni’s reckoning with those ephemeral connections was chilling. At the conclusion, with her former world lost to her and physically humiliated, she has nowhere to turn. Her desolation was as palpable as the stars flaming out in the darkness surrounding her.
(The reviewed performance took place on February 9, 2013 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California. The Little Mermaid was originally choreographed for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2005 and restaged for The Hamburg Ballet in 2007. Hamburg Ballet continues this week with performances of its full length ballet “Nijinsky” in San Francisco)