The Little Mermaid


The Little Mermaid  ballet. Choreography by John Neumeier. Music by Lera Auerbach. Performed 2011 by the San Francisco Ballet (Helgi Tomasson Artistic Director) at the War Memorial Opera House. Stars Yuan Yuan Tan (The Little Mermaid), Lloyd Riggins (The Poet), Tiit Helimets (The Prince), Sarah Van Patten (The Princess), and Davit Karapetyan (The Sea Witch). Martin West conducts the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Sets, costume design, and lighting by John Neumeier; video direction by Thomas Grimm; produced by Judy Flannery and Bernhard Fleischer. Released 2011, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A+

Water spirits have benefited a lot from the advent of HDVD. They've been around since the beginning of literature when every fountain, waterfall, pool, swamp, lake, and sea had several or many of them, some benign and others dangerous. In the middle ages most of the water spirits seemed to live in Slavic regions, where they were called rusalkas. Today we don't have to risk quicksand, whirlpools, or ship-destroying reefs to meet water spirits. We can see them in our home theaters by watching Ondine, Rusalka, Das Rheingold, and now, The Little Mermaid

Hans Christian Anderson wrote his fairy tale The Little Mermaid in 1836. It has been the inspiration for many adaptations ranging from the most banal kiddy kistch to profound works like the Rusalka opera. This ballet version was created in 2005 by choreographer John Neumeier and composer Lera Auerbach for the Royal Danish Ballet. After substantial revision, it premiered in the United States in 2010 at the San Francisco Ballet. The version on subject disc was recorded live in San Francisco in May, 2011.

A totally modern work, this is probably the most serious and trenchant version of Anderson's story yet. It requires an adult attention span and was not intended to entertain kids, but nothing in the ballet would be unsuitable for a child who might be motivated to watch it.

The disc has a beautiful and inspiring bonus in which Neumeier explains his libretto, which has features not found in Anderson's short tale. There is an equally informative bonus with composer Lera Auerbach (still a young woman). Her score may turn out to be the most important piece of music yet written for the theremin electronic instrument, which gives the entire score a unique and intriguing sound. For you trivial buffs, the score has (I think) a lot of clever quotes from famous music. Two I get are Der Kanonensong from the Threepenny Opera and the Beethoven Fifth Symphony Tango. Let me know about any quotes you discover.

This production and recording is a huge triumph for the San Francisco Ballet. Their secret weapon was their Mermaid, Yuan Yuan Tan. (The San Francisco Ballet in 2009 also released an A+ video recording of the Nutcracker. The outstanding performance in that production was given by Yuan Yuan Tan as the Snow Queen.) Yuan Yuan is Chinese. It appears her Eastern features have not prevented her from being completely successful in dancing the great ballet roles created in the past by Westerners. Still, one would suspect that her appearance may have been a handicap to overcome. If so, Yuan Yuan can now rejoice in the Mermaid role: in this instance, her appearance can be an advantage to her in portraying the role of an exotic outsider who can never quite fit in. (The water spirit role in Ondine was also an icing-on-the-cake triumph for Japanese ballerina Miyako Yoshida at the Royal Opera House.)

This Mermaid must be one of the toughest of ballerina roles. She is almost continuously on stage. While under water, she must portray a perfect creature for whom every move is effortlessly beautiful. But when in the world of men, she must dance the role of a woman for whom every step is excruciatingly painful. And even greater than physical pain, she must act out the psychological agony of a woman who is constantly rejected by the man she loves and who is in fact in debt to her for saving his life. All this Yuan Yuan handles with astonishing aplomb. She may be the best actress in the world who is also a world-class ballet dancer. (In the bonus extra feature, Yuan Yuan claims no acting skill---she says she just feels like the Mermaid.)

Joining Yuan Yuan in an outstanding performances is Lloyd Riggins, an American dancer who mastered in Denmark the important role in this ballet of Anderson the Poet. (Yes, Anderson himself appears here in his own story as an alter ego to the character of the Mermaid.)  In the final apotheosis scene, Neumeier, Anderson, and the Little Mermaid manage to create a sense of spirituality that goes beyond what you usually expect of dance, the most physical and corporeal of the arts.

David Karapetyan is a delightfully energetic (he) Sea Witch. Tiit Helimets and Sarah van Patten match well as the Prince and Princess whose marriage finishes off the Mermaid. The male and female corps provide plenty of action below and above the waves to keep the story moving smartly.

The sets, costumes, and lighting all match the libretto perfectly, which is not too surprising because Neumeier designed them all himself. The music was brilliantly conducted by Martin West. Thomas Grimm provides beautiful picture quality with no motion artifacts. He does an excellent job of balancing long-range shots showing the entire company and impressive close-up shots, especially of the dancers carrying the acting loads.

Now for some screen shots. We begin with the Mermaid, serene in her waterworld:

She meets the Prince when he goes for a swim. The gent in black is Hans Christian Anderson:

During a storm, the Mermaid saves the Prince's life. She takes him back to the shore where he is found by the Princess; alas, the Prince can't remember what happened and the Mermaid gets no credit for saving him:

Determined to follow the Prince, the Mermaid seeks help of the Sea Witch, who rips off her tail and scales:

The Mermaid becomes part of the Prince's inner circle, but she is treated as a mascot. Here she struggles to be a bridesmaid in the wedding of the Prince and Princess, but everything on land is hard for her:

Next comes a spectacular wedding party (the bridesmaids all fancy themselves as Jackie Kennedy):

But infuriated by the humiliation of the Mermaid, the Sea Witch crashes the party:

The Mermaid can return to the sea if she will kill the Prince:

But the Mermaid can't do it. She despairs at her damnation:

At this point, it should be curtains for the Mermaid per the myth. But Hans Christian tacks on an apotheosis for the Mermaid and Neumeier extends the apotheosis to Hans Christian also:


In summary, this is an exemplary "A+" title by, considering the HDVD ballet titles that have been published so far, the only world-class ballet company in the United States. In terms of range of expression and psychological depth, Yuan Yuan Tan's report here is matchless in the history of recordings of ballerina performances. (Remarkable irony: Just as the mermaid in the story was dismissed by her Prince, so Yuan Yuan Tan was deprecated by her company when her name was not put on the front of the disc package. Well, somewhere there must be a lawyer to blame for that.) Let's hope the San Francisco Ballet will continue to give us more such wonderful HDVD titles as The Little Mermaid.

Here's a short trailer from C Major for The Little Mermaid: