Choreographer John Neumeier has made more than 100 ballets; yet he is best known for his gripping dance adaptations of literary classics. Over the course of his long career, Neumeier has created an impressive body of narrative-driven full-length ballets, his literary tastes ranging from Shakespeare to Chekhov to Tennessee Williams. His ballet, The Little Mermaid, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale of the same title, is one of those works – a visually striking and richly-theatrical piece, full of dark undertones and deep psychological connotations.
Returning to Washington, D.C. after a nearly 13-year hiatus, Hamburg Ballet gave seven performances of The Little Mermaid at the Kennedy Center Opera House in March. This was the 2007 version of the ballet, which Neumeier, artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet for the past 44 years, specifically tailored for his company. The original production, commissioned by Royal Danish Ballet to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen, was premiered in Copenhagen in 2005.
In Andersen’s 1837 fairytale, a mermaid makes a sinister bargain with a Sea Witch and, as a result, undergoes a gruesome physical transformation to win the love of a prince only to see him marry another woman. It’s a somber and dark story; yet in Neumeier’s hands it gets even darker. Don’t expect Disney’s happily-ever-after – this Little Mermaid is certainly not for children.
In his retelling, Neumeier gives the fairytale a biographical spin, introducing a new character – the Poet, who suffers (just like Andersen did in his life) from unrequited love for a man named Edvard. The ballet opens with a stunning image of a book page, depicting the Poet, in a black tailcoat and top hat, perched on a pile of chairs on a ship deck. Illuminated by golden light, the page magically comes to life and gets busy with wedding festivities – Edvard, the Captain of the ship, is getting married to a beautiful woman named Henriette.
The devastated Poet mourns his permanent separation from Edvard; his tears roll down his cheeks and fall into the ocean, taking the form of a little mermaid. As the ballet unfolds, Neumeier links the unhappy romantic life of Andersen (the Poet) with that of the Little Mermaid. Their troubled love stories go hand-in-hand, with the Captain and Henriette doubling as a Prince and a Princess.
Sorrow and despair drive the Poet overboard. We follow him as he plunges into the deep and enters the realm of the Little Mermaid. In the oceanic scenes of the first act, the stage evokes a mysterious grotto, flooded with deep blue light and populated by a menagerie of aquatic creatures. The floating rods of neon lights, suspended from above, aptly convey a roller coaster of crashing waves. The Mermaid and her entourage luxuriate in their watery home, moving in a liquid, flowing manner; their uninhibited frolics looking at once hypnotic and utterly realistic.
In addition to the choreography, Neumeier is responsible for stage decorations, costumes, and lighting effects and he’s certainly done an excellent job with all of them. As the story gets going, the ingenious sets seamlessly move the action from the ship to the bottom of the ocean and back to dry land and contribute greatly to the ballet’s appeal. Neumeier’s depiction of the underwater world is particularly impressive, offering plenty of zest, whimsy and breathtaking imagery.
As the water nymph of the title, Silvia Azzoni claimed the richest moments of the ballet. Her heroine’s courageous quest for happiness and her sacrifice for love – her journey from a lush aquatic paradise to a hostile human world, where she felt rejected, misunderstood, and unloved – formed the emotional core of the show, turning it into a deeply compelling dance-drama with relevant themes on the human condition at its heart.
In the ballet’s nautical scenes, dressed in a silky blue costume, complete with long, flowing hakama trousers to resemble a fishtail, the phenomenally pliant Azzoni moved through space with uninhibited, loose-limbed abandon. Unlike Disney’s long-haired Ariel, and Andersen’s heroine for that matter, this Mermaid was anything but a beauty, her face pallid and invariably sad. Yet her love for the Prince, whom she saved from drowning, transformed her, setting her heart ablaze with passion and desire to enter his human world.
Gruesome in its directness, the scene of her transformation from a sea creature to a human being was hard to watch. When her tail was ripped off by the Sea Witch, the Mermaid shivered and squiggled from excruciating pain every time her feet touched the ground.
On land, awkward and shy, the Mermaid felt out of place in her new environment and out of sync with the snobbish crowd of royal guests. To add to her misfortune, the Prince was about to wed someone else. Disillusioned and hopeless, she reached breaking point – the emotional pain of loneliness and unrequited love proved much too difficult to endure.
A lissome and sensual dancer and an actress of outstanding gifts, Azzoni played her role with realistic vulnerability and admirable emotional insight, giving her heroine a poignant dramatic complexity that the rest of the characters sadly lacked.
As her Prince, Carsten Jung perfectly channeled his hero’s royal ennui, yet his character came across as a cartoon. When he didn’t play golf, flashing his shapely legs, this Prince paraded onstage with the puzzled look of a man who cannot decide what to do with his spare time. Too self-absorbed to recognize her feelings, he treated the Mermaid like his little pet, playing silly tricks and making fun of her, ultimately driving her to a tragic demise.
Lloyd Riggins’s role of the Poet was also a mere sketch, devoid of poignancy and depth; for much of the show his melancholy character was lurking behind the scenes like an uninvited guest; and the lovely and graceful Carolina Agüero, alas, had not much to do as the Princess.
The vibrant, if somewhat predictable, ensembles of assorted secondary personages, including sea creatures, sailors, and wedding guests, infused the story with a welcome dash of exuberance and good humor.
The original score by the Russian-born Lera Auerbach was one of the great pleasures of this production. Lush and brassy, rich in texture and dynamics, the music brought to memory a variety of famous tunes from Beethoven’s titanic Seventh Symphony to “”Fried Chick,” a gangster song of post-revolutionary Russia, wittily arranged by Auerbach. The Opera House orchestra, led by Luciano D. Martino, gave an admirable rendition to the score, playing with skill and appealing bombast.