A tale of unrequited love is also a meditation on the anguish and ecstasy of art in Hamburg Ballet’s exquisite The Little Mermaid. The dance theater tour de force by John Neumeir, the company’s artistic director since 1973, had its Washington premiere Tuesday night to a well-deserved standing ovation.
Banish all Disneyesque notions from your mind. This Mermaid is an utterly different fish, hewing more closely to the melancholy mood of the Hans Christian Andersen story, and adding an Andersen-type character, the Poet, in a framing meta-narrative. Commissioned by the Royal Danish Ballet to celebrate Andersen’s 200th birthday, the work premiered in 2005 but was substantially revised for a 2007 Hamburg version, which is what we see now at the Kennedy Center.
A shipboard wedding reminds the Poet of another wedding, that of his friend Edvard to Henriette. In reverie, the Poet’s love for Edvard takes the form of the imagined mermaid, who frolics with an Edvard-like Prince. She falls in love with the Prince, saves him from drowning, and persuades the stern Sea Witch to exchange her tail for human legs and feet. But when she goes ashore to be with the Prince, she discovers he is to wed a Princess (who is much like Henriette). The Prince was under the mistaken impression that this woman saved him from the sea, and he was smitten with her.
A true and tragic fish out of water, the Mermaid painfully and awkwardly tries to adapt to her human form and to the constricting walled environment of life on land. She even gamely serves as a bridesmaid at the Prince’s wedding — anything to be near him. But he sees her only as his fun little buddy, a platonic playmate, his fond condescension toward her embodied by that annoying patronizing-uncle trick of grabbing your nose from your face and displaying it to you as the thumb between your second and third fingers. Amusing to a four-year-old perhaps, but not to a delicate creature who loves you and has sacrificed everything to be with you.
At her wit’s end, the Mermaid is instructed by the Sea Witch to stab the Prince. In return, her tail and her sea life will be restored to her. Desperate, she tries, but, of course, can’t, and the Prince thinks her botched attack is just another odd but good-natured antic. In limbo between land and sea, between love and desolation, Mermaid and Poet are left with nothing and no one to embrace except one another and their shared fantasy.
Neumeier not only choreographed, but also designed the set, costumes, and lighting. He has a wonderful collaborator, however, in composer Lera Auerbach, whose lush multifaceted score was performed magnificently by the Opera House Orchestra under the baton of Luciano Di Martino with featured violin soloist Anton Barakhovsky.
The set’s sophistication is belied by its minimalist lines, for instance the waves represented by light tubes stretching across the stage — blue in calm seas, lightning white in a storm. Among Neumeier’s other clever devices are circumscribed bright rectangles suspended in the darkness; a traveling miniature suspended ship, complete with steam stack; an askew, claustrophobic room in which the Mermaid, on land, is confined; and an unexpected galaxy of stars. None of these constructions are used simply to dazzle; all contribute profoundly to the action at hand.
His costuming, too, is splendid and whimsical, the undersea creatures in loose satin pants, the legs of which go on and on, trailing fluidly with kicks and partner-assisted leaps and slow-motion mid-air tumbles. The winged head pieces of a flock of nuns, in conjunction with their tiny-lensed sunglasses, enhance their aviary essence. And the interwar party dresses and impish beachwear of the Prince’s castle guests radiate a snazzy, decadent esprit. In contrast, the Prince’s minimal gray bathing trunks and the Mermaid’s flesh-toned underthings as she tries to gain control of her ungainly lower appendages highlight the characters’ fundamental vulnerability.
Auerbach’s score suggests many influences but is slave to none. She animates the sea environs with neo-Ravellian strains, replete with glissandos, bent notes, and string parts that probe high and low reaches. The land dwellers, among them sailors engaging in a series of hyperactive calisthenics, jump to more percussive Shostakovich-style cadences. We hear too, however, twisted childlike tunes in the mode of Prokofiev and Mahler, winky quotes from Beethoven’s Fifth and Dvorak’s New World Symphony, jazzy saxophone lines that might have come from a score by Jacques Ibert, and even a peculiar but enticing adagio suggestive of Albinoni but spiced with subdued dissonances. When the Mermaid is torn between the Prince and her ocean home, Auerbach’s scoring for celeste and theremin alarm and woos us in the manner of golden-age horror and suspense films. She has many musical tricks up her sleeve and uses them to generous and courageous effect.
The gripping score and sumptuous trappings, however, would all be for naught if we didn’t believe in the principals. We do — absolutely.
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Hamburg Theatre’s The Little Mermaid
closes April 2, 2017
Details and tickets
Her acting as compelling as her dancing, Silvia Azzoni is an exotic, fluidly graceful Mermaid, and then, on land, poignantly frail. There’s a girlish transparency to both her desire and her despondency.
Carsten Jung shows impressive range. One moment he’s the jokey, oblivious Prince, whacking golf balls into the sea, goofing, with his Tim Robbins smile, alongside his sailor pals. The next he is partnering Azzoni with a playful tenderness. Then he escorts, with élan, the stylishly athletic Carolina Aguero, who plays the Princess.
Karen Azatyan is a fierce Sea Witch, all thrusting torso and murderous, jabbing arms. Among traditions from which Neumeier borrows are Balinese dance and Japanese Noh theater. Those resonate through much of the undersea movement as well as the makeup and costuming of the aqua creatures, but particularly in the Sea Witch.
Lloyd Riggins, as the Poet, is soulful, conveying the sorcerous power of the artist, as well as the unbridgeable distance between his oceanic yearnings and his arid reality. He is a meditative counterpart to the enticing circus of the spirit around him, a company with casually superior technique buzzing about Neumeier’s busy stage.
It’s easy to see why Hamburg has held on to the Milwaukee-born Neumeier for four and a half decades. Catch this bold and inventive production if you can.