‘The Little Mermaid’ at SF Ballet

1269478785Little Mermaidsmall.jpg
Yuan Yuan Tan and Lloyd Riggins in The Little Mermaid, photo by Eric Tomasson

The blue world of unrequited love

“The Little Mermaid” has been adapted many times in many different ways, from surrealist opera to Japanese anime to Walt Disney’s misguided rewrite of social heroism. The story’s continuous appeal comes from its focus on love as a mysterious and undeniable force that is also dark and destructive.

When American-born choreographer John Neumeier chose to set the story for the Royal Danish Ballet’s celebration of Hans Christian Andersen’s 200th anniversary, he discarded those uncomfortably Victorian parts of the story that reflect the writer’s moralistic and Christian stance toward children as readers and romantic love as a subject. The story Neumeier tells places Andersen within the story and dwells on the writer’s haunted pursuit of Love and its golden sister, Beauty.

San Francisco Ballet is presenting this unusual contemporary ballet as its fifth program of the season, and the dancers exalt the work—creating exquisitely strange and beautiful worlds in which love metamorphoses in dreamlike imagery, reforming itself from the pain unrequited desire into an apotheosis.

The ballet opens on a rectangle of white light suspended over the stage, in which the Poet, a figure strikingly like the Victorian gentleman Andersen was, grieves over the wedding that will mean the loss of his friend, Edvard. The rectangle describes a segment of the ship where Edvard and his friends are celebrating his wedding on board a ship at sea. A fluorescent line traces the curves of the ocean surface below. The raucous wedding party leaves, and the Poet is left, stricken and alone. Tears fall from the Poet’s face, and he slides over the side of the boat and into the ocean; its glowing line of water rises above him.

The Little Mermaid appears among the denizens of this blue underworld: she is the doppelganger of the Poet’s dark, unsatisfied love. Throughout the story, the Poet and Mermaid never leave each other’s presence. A passing ship sinks and a Prince on board falls to the depths of the ocean. The Mermaid saves the Prince, returning him to shore, and when she does, she repeats the history of the Poet: falling in love with a man who in turn falls in love with another.

Sarah Van Patten danced the Little Mermaid on Sunday, her pale skin powdered paler and glowing under the blue lights of the ocean. Her supple back and luscious arms wound and waved like preternatural sea grass. Although the choreography, especially the on-land tremblings and quaverings of the mermaid’s sea legs, was difficult, it was the acting that was most demanding in the role of the Little Mermaid: unfulfilled longing, the hopeless otherness of a creature stranded in a painfully constricting world of rooms and social conventions, the pain of using new legs. Van Patten projected all the nuances of the mermaid’s sorrow.

Damian Smith’s Poet was also beautifully portrayed. Pierre-François Vilanoba made an endearing and playful Prince and Vanessa Zahorian an elegant and sympathetic Princess. The double pas de deux with the Poet and Mermaid dancing a febrile and injured mirroring of the Prince and Princess was one of the most striking passages. Although I wasn’t always thrilled by the choreography as dance, it was excellent as theatrical movement, and in that way it partook of the legacy of 19th-century dance with its use of pantomime as a storytelling device while using its own vocabulary of gestures. The company’s superb dancing raised the choreography to a level of theatrical grace and excellence that made it both unquestionable and meaningful.

Using the long, silk skirt-pants of Noh theater, the Mermaid in her flowing garments, rose and fell in the arms of three black-clad men, resembling the puppeteers in Bunraku, as if riding the current of the sea. The evil Sea Witch was danced by Garen Scribner, dressed like a cross between a pirate and a Noh demon in black, white and red.

An exotic, fantastical dream-like version of Andersen’s classic story, Neumeier’s Little Mermaid conjures a deep level of the Romantic imagination.

—Jaime Robles

SF Ballet’s production of John Neumeier’s “The Little Mermaid” (U.S. premiere) continues through March 28. For tickets and information, call 415-865-2000 or visit

Photo: Yuan Yuan Tan as the Little Mermaid and Lloyd Riggins in San Francisco Ballet’s production of Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid. Copyright by Erik Tomasson