Not showing your average Disney tale, San Francisco Ballet just wrapped up its seventh program of the 2019 season with a dark rendition of “The Little Mermaid” at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco on April 28. Full of elaborate light shows and a more contemporary mood than its usual productions, this under-the-sea tale of a tail was anything but washed up.
Before the curtain rose, the audience had been enchanted by the musical workings of an orchestra playing the works of modern Russian composer Lera Auerbach. Quickly falling into silence, a massive white lightbox came into view holding a small wedding party on the side of a ship. The audience was introduced to a rather unfamiliar character in this establishing scene: the Poet, played by Ulrik Birkkjaer.
The place of the Poet in this story remains unclear even after taking in the entire ballet; the character plays a role in almost every scene with no comprehensive purpose. While choreographer and designer John Neumeier was following the vision of Hans Christian Andersen, the original author of the story, audience members do not get a clear background of who the Poet is supposed to be in this narrative.
The Poet only becomes slightly more understandable when one reads the ballet program, which completely throws off anyone who thought they might understand what was going on. In this program, the Poet is actually the main character of the story, and every scene taking place underwater is merely a figment of his imagination, every character and occurrence contrived from his memories and fantasies.
From the looks of the scene, the Poet takes part in a boat wedding before falling overboard. He then meets the creatures of the sea while one of his friends — the groom of the wedding party, played by Aaron Robison — falls into an intimate relationship with the Little Mermaid.
Gotcha — none of this actually happens, and it is apparently just the imagination of the Poet playing out onstage, even though there’s almost no clear indication of this to audience members outside of the performance program. The Poet is not an original character in the Anderson story, so the addition by Neumeier seems unnecessary.
This one setback in the writing doesn’t take away from the extraordinary production quality San Francisco Ballet brings to the table time and time again, however. Largely set underwater, lighting director Ralf Merkel created a utopia of neon light that bounced in the air to simulate the motion of waves above. Every dancer emulated this movement; as the Little Mermaid, Yuan Yuan Tan appeared nearly boneless as she moved her arms fluidly through the air.
Tan demonstrated an amazing degree of trust in her peers, often being carried by black-suited figures as if she were “swimming” throughout her dance. As her tail was stripped away in a more intense scene of the ballet, she appeared in a nude bodysuit, the nakedness of her character being expertly pantomimed through her vulnerable expressions and unsure movements.
The overall aesthetic of the ballet was much less traditional than the productions preceding in this season’s lineup. With music that sounded more fitting for a horror film and dancers free of pointe shoes, audience members were exposed to what the program called “the intense pain of human disappointment.”
This is not a happy adventure of the Little Mermaid and the Prince falling in love, but rather of the Little Mermaid’s disappointment that real life doesn’t always work out in your favor — and sometimes you sell your tail to a Sea Witch all for the guy you love to marry a civilian girl (Sasha De Sola) that in fact isn’t part fish. Bummer.
Ultimately, “The Little Mermaid” was a grand display of modernistic, geometric backgrounds and heightened, tormented emotional intimacy. The use of light to jump between land and sea was clear and beautiful, but the direction of the narrative was a little more than chaotic.