San Francisco Ballet closed out its season a fortnight ago with a week-long revival of John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid, based of course on the famous Hans Christian Andersen story. I bought a ticket for the Friday performance, mostly lured by the thought of hearing Lera Auerbach’s score. I had the impression that the show itself would probably be more of a splashy spectacle and fun pantomime than anything else. It turned out to be unsettling, moving, profoundly searching, and in general astonishingly good. I’m sorry I only got to see one of the casts. The forthcoming DVD is sure to be worth a look (before its DVD release I think it’s being shown on Great Performances, but KQED will no doubt bury it at some inconvenient hour so they may continue to deluge us with superannuated baby-boomer rockers and overblown popera schmaltz).
The major change from Andersen’s story is the introduction of an Andersen figure, The Poet (Pascal Molat). In a reflection of Andersen’s own complicated sexuality (I mean, everyone’s sexuality is complicated, but Andersen’s was a bit outside the normal range of complicated), the Poet is mourning the impending loss to marriage of his beloved friend Edvard (Pierre-Francois Vilanoba). Much of what we see, except for Edvard’s love for his Henriette (Vanessa Zahorian), is a projection of the Poet’s wishes and fantasies – though perhaps all of what we see is the Poet’s projection; it’s certainly possible that part of his strange melancholy make-up is an underlying desire to be rejected and misunderstood. And the Little Mermaid, the personification of his feelings for Edvard, is definitely an odd being, far from Disney’s cheerful Ariel but also far from Andersen’s delicate devoted maiden. She’s a strange little creature (I mean, everyone is strange, but she’s a bit outside the normal range of strange).
Even underwater she’s not quite like her sister mermaids. We see her floating, her tail waving in the waters. This is accomplished by a simple but ingenious method: three male dancers, dressed in black like the kuroko (one of several influences from traditional Japanese theater in the staging), lift her and arrange her flowing blue-green dress to form the tail, and then carry her so that she swims. After her deal with the Sea Witch (danced by Garen Scribner, in black trousers and low-cut red shirt, with a small skull as a belt buckle, his dead-white face painted like a kabuki demon’s in black and red streaks) she lets him have her tail in exchange for legs. It’s done very simply – she’s rolled among the Sea Witch’s minions, and as she rolls her long flowing skirt comes off – but the effect is terrifying, like watching a rape, and it leaves her almost unclothed, and exposed.
Her movements on land are oddly froglike. She is never quite comfortable there, and never quite fits in. She mopes after the Prince/Edvard, even at his wedding, and clearly is never going to manage to behave like the normal people. In fact it’s not surprising that the Prince sticks with his sunny lovely Princess, who he thinks saved him from drowning (though it was really the Little Mermaid), rather than switching to the strange suffocating love of this amphibious girl.
Perhaps because I had recently seen Pascal Molat dancing Petrouchka, I was frequently reminded of the lovelorn puppet. Lisa saw the same program and wondered if a woman had ever danced Petrouchka. In a way, that’s what the Little Mermaid is. Like Petrouchka, she’s not a normal human; she moves awkwardly, shoulders hunched, feet pointed out, arms awkwardly crossed in front of her. In one vivid and painful moment, she’s sitting on the ground, grief-stricken, and she radiates the pain of rejection, down to each of her toes, splayed out and held unnaturally.
The movement throughout, not just in individual small moments like that one but in groups (ranging from the difference between the Prince’s strange contorted first pas de deux with the Little Mermaid, as contrasted with his more conventionally ballet-pretty first pas de deux with the Princess, to a psychologically probing pas de quatre for Poet, Prince, Princess, and Mermaid, to such ensemble numbers as the sailors exercising on deck) reveals so much that I can see why the show is sometimes criticized as repetitive – when you see the Poet at the very beginning, hunched under his book, you instantly can tell so much about him that further display might seem redundant.
I didn’t find the show unnecessarily repetitive, for the ironic reason that I had been sick enough to skip the play I was supposed to attend the night before and to stay home all day Friday (I’m better now, thanks, but it took a while). So instead of feeling emptied after working all day and irritated at having to kill three hours after work before the show started, I was comparatively rested and less likely to feel that they just really needed to keep the story chugging along: instead, I felt, it’s a dance, so let them all go ahead and dance.
So I enjoyed the scenes that were, strictly speaking, perhaps a bit extraneous, and mostly just to show dance, like the raucous exercises of the sailors on deck (though there were several things going on there as well: the sailors were following the movements initiated by the Poet, so we could see that the unfolding story was under his direction; the angular athletic moves on land contrasted with the undulant movements in the underwater scenes; and the score wittily undercut with gentle satire the land-world the Mermaid longs to join, quoting the Brecht/Weill Army Song from the Threepenny Opera and even in passing the famous fate theme that opens Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony).
Since I had first decided to go based on the score, I should mention that it was wonderful and wide-ranging. There was a large and interesting orchestra. Beforehand (I was in the front row, very far over to the right, though only once or twice could I briefly not see the action) I watched one of the percussionists carefully fill glasses with enough water to create the right glass-harmonica-like ethereal wailing when he rubbed their edges. He would test them, hit the tuning fork, and then adjust the amount of water. I was right in front of the percussion section. A couple of times a sudden blow on a big drum or a cymbal crush would make me jump a little.
At the end there is an apotheosis, one that reminded me of Swan Lake and Mark Morris’s Romeo and Juliet: the Poet has been in frockcoat and formal wear throughout, but now we see him half-naked, wearing loose white pants. (We've seen the bodies of the other male dancers before, but not the Poet's until this moment.) The Mermaid is also in a flowing white garment, as when she was first transformed. They are alone, dancing together in the white box that had earlier held them individually, but now their movements are no longer frenzied but gentle and harmonious and in rhythm with each other. The violins fade to a whisper as the lights dim and they keep dancing together as darkness falls and stars come out around them.
Afterwards an audience member, who had been several times, said to me that she felt very privileged to have seen the performance, and I knew exactly what she meant, and felt the same way. It was one of those lucky nights when the audience is perfection – you only noticed them when you occasionally realized you weren’t noticing them. After a couple of days of unpleasant heat the weather had cooled down with a pleasant breeze and when I reached the BART station I only had to wait three minutes for a train, and instead of the usual jampacked four-car train they run at that hour, there were nine cars and plenty of space and quiet. These things all contribute to the experience of the evening, though the main thing is seeing an absolute knockout of a show. And to top it all off, my hair, which is longer than usual, was – though I should not be the one to say this, but no one else is going to – swirling perfectly.
These are the magic nights that keep drawing us back to the theater.