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The Little Mermaid, featuring the San Francisco Ballet, is a visually arresting new interpretation of the classic tale.

DVD Review: The Little Mermaid – featuring the San Francisco Ballet

The ballet The Little Mermaid, featuring the San Francisco Ballet premieres on PBS’ Great Performances, as part of the PBS Arts Fall Festival, on December 16, 2011 at 9 p.m. A DVD of the filmed performance has just been released in conjunction with the broadcast. It runs 154 minutes, with German and French subtitles available.


[Yuan Yuan Tan as the Little Mermaid, with Lloyd Riggins as The Poet]

Hamburg Ballet Director and Chief Choreographer John Neumeier choreographed the ballet, as well as designed the sets, costumes, and lighting for The Little Mermaid. In his introduction he gives the audience some background about author Hans Christian Andersen, who had a history of falling in love with the wrong women, and possibly men as well. His writing of the original story of The Little Mermaid may have been spurred on by his unrequited love for the recently married Edvard Collin.

The two-act ballet opens in silence with The Poet (Lloyd Riggins, an alter ego for Andersen) on shipboard, the guest at a wedding. The music, by Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach, begins as The Poet picks up conch shell and is transported beneath the ocean where the mermaid and wedding party all exist in his dreamscape. The ballet explores themes of unconditional love and redemption, as it follows Andersen’s story of a mermaid (played by San Francisco Ballet prima ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan), who for the love of a man (The Prince, played by Tiit Helimets), becomes human, only to watch him fall in love with another (The Princess, played by Sarah Van Patten).

The Poet is always on hand to support his creation and watch her suffer, but he seems powerless to influence the course of her story, which is an interesting metaphor for the artist. Although technically ballet, the vigorous dance numbers, especially with sailors on board ship, evoke modern dance and even classic Broadway theater.

[The Little Mermaid with The Prince, Tiit Helimets]

The DVD of the ballet was filmed at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. The set design at times suggests turn-of-the century art deco cruise posters by Cassandre (when the dancers are on land) and an abstract nightclub (due to the startling lighting effects) beneath the sea.

Neumeier has interpreted the mermaid’s tail in extra-long pants legs, which seem awkward at first, but actually do work, as the fabric can be twisted by dancers to take the shape of a tail, or just trail along behind the Little Mermaid, like a fin.

The Sea Witch (Davit Karapetyan) helps the Little Mermaid become human, depicted here as physically tortuous. She is even briefly confined to a wheelchair, as she hasn’t quite figured out how to use her legs, giving the Princess, first seen as a Madeline-like school girl, an opportunity to wow the Prince.

This interpretation of The Little Mermaid follows Andersen’s tragic fairytale more closely than the Disney sanitized version. Yuan Yuan Tan’s make-up gives her skin a cold, blue tinge, even above land, as if she can never completely warm up to her new role as a human.

[The Sea Witch, Davit Karapetyan]

The second act features more bold and graphic sets, costumes, and colors than the first, as the action moves inside, becomes claustrophobic. The Little Mermaid grapples in her box-like room, before having to attend the wedding of the Prince to the Princess, a heartbroken bridesmaid in a blood-red gown.

Just as the Little Mermaid is about to lose all hope, the wonderfully malevolent Sea Witch offers her another bargain: if she kills the Prince she can go back to her old life beneath the sea. Her pas-de-deux with the Prince is especially poignant, as he continues to react to her in an amused, brotherly way. He will never love her as she loves him. But she can’t kill him, either. She loves him too much. 

Once she accepts her rejection it’s back to the box room, as she ends her days trapped in her new guise, new world, so much smaller than the huge beautiful blue ocean she used to swim in. The Poet can’t leave her alone to her fate and joins her. They mirror each other in their pas-de-deux, transported to the stars. It’s a bit of an abstract ending, but it is also visually arresting and beautiful to watch. 

The DVD and Blu-ray include behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew, including Neumeier discussing how he was influenced by Japanese costumes to create the mermaid’s “fins.” Viewers will feel rewarded by the chance to view the ballet The Little Mermaid in the more intimate setting of their homes, and have the opportunity to see the dancers’ faces and emotions during the course of the piece.

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