This week, San Francisco Ballet brings John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid to life, but don’t characterized this ballet as “little”. It’s one larger-than-life, intricate, and creepy story that presents forward thinking, cutting edge, and soul stirring theater ballet sans Flounder, a saccharine score, or seashell bras. Neumeier’s Mermaid, which debuted five years ago in Copenhagen, is based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale of a young mermaid who gives up her life in the sea for the love of a prince. In Neumeier’s version, he gives us a troubled Poet, the writer of the story, as the source of mermaid who is the embodiment of his soul.
What: San Francisco Ballet’s The Little Mermaid
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco
When: Now through Sunday, March 28th
Tickets: Online, via 415.865.2000, or at the Ballet Box Office at 301 Van Ness Ave.
How Neumeier tells this story is what transforms this ballet from mermaidtale (fairytale just didn’t seem… right) to a dark and sleek dreamscape gone wrong. And I say this in a good way. Sunday’s matinee was packed (how ironic was it that one of my coworkers was sitting in the seats behind me?), and as the lights dimmed on the blue watercolor scrim, magic happened. Damian Smith, as the Poet, mourns over his dear friend who gets married at sea, and slinks overboard and into the fantastical depths of his memories. Oh woe is him.
The Poet’s longing manifests itself into a mermaid who pines for all things above water, and Sarah Van Patten as the Little Mermaid rightfully stole the show as she navigated her way through murky waters and heartbreak. This mermaid isn’t a wispy, one-note princess but an otherworldly fishy creature, with head cocked to the side and arms rippling outward, grounded by what’s around her while also liberated by the possibilities of living underwater. Early on, Van Patten “swims” through the sea of dancers, and she’s inquisitive, as we soon witness her saving a prince from drowning and falling in love with him as she returns him to land. You latch onto her, and root, “Yes, mermaid, find love and independence!”
Yet watching her gut wrenching encounter with the Sea Witch, danced by the love child of Hellraiser and a Mortal Kombat aficionado (Garen Scribner, a talented soloist on the rise, combined the sublime of his jumps and leg line with a bone chilling evilness into one ice cold villain), proved harder than watching a late-night Lifetime movie. (Which reminds me, this ballet is not for the faint of heart or young children. Puh-leaze heed this warning!) As her sea body was ripped from her torso, our mermaid convulsed in distress, violently morphing from ethereal sea goddess into childlike human being.
Van Patten moved naturally through Neumeier’s organic and earthy choreography, displaying her heart on her sleeve as she wrestled with confinement and social expectations. By the end, she looked emotionally wrecked (which here is a good thing), and the audience gratefully acknowledged that with several standing ovations. She obviously anchored Sunday’s cast, which also included Pierre-Fran