By Cheryl A. Ossola
In The Little Mermaid, Hamburg Ballet Director and Chief Choreographer John Neumeier blends dance, dramatic storytelling, and spectacle into a stunning interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable. With choreography, sets, and costumes all by Neumeier, this ballet—as much theater as it is dance—reveals the depths of the choreographer’s imagination. And it demands the heights of artistry from the dancers, who must venture into deeply emotional terrain in order to convey the ballet’s full message.
Neumeier elevates a fantasy into a sophisticated portrayal of psychological transformation and the resilience of the spirit, human or otherwise. Neumeier created The Little Mermaid for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2005 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Andersen’s birth. Of all the famous writer’s stories, the choreographer chose this one because of its “very particular concept of love,” he says. “Love that is so strong that it can overcome boundaries, that it can transport her to new worlds, although it may seem to be self-destructive—because the Mermaid re-creates herself at the cost of extreme personal pain. But the story teaches us, at the same time, that no matter how strong our love may be, it doesn’t obligate the object of our love to love us in return.”
“Visually stunning” is how San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson described The Little Mermaid when he first saw it in Hamburg. “It was a very dramatic piece, very emotional,” he says. Always looking for opportunities for his dancers, Tomasson says he felt this ballet would be “wonderful to bring to San Francisco. The role of the Mermaid is fantastic! It’s very difficult, what she has to do.” Tomasson and Neumeier have a long history— as a member of the Harkness Ballet, Tomasson danced in Stages and Reflections, one of Neumeier’s earliest ballets. “We’re talking about 40 years ago,” says Tomasson. But the experience left a clear memory of what it’s like to work with Neumeier. “He’s very demanding— he reminds me of [Jerome] Robbins in that way—every little detail has to be to his liking,” Tomasson says. “I feel that he’s a major artist, and maybe now the time is right for us to see his work more in this country.”
Neumeier, a Milwaukee-born American who has spent nearly his entire career in Europe, trained in Copenhagen and London and began his dancing and choreographic careers at Stuttgart Ballet. After only six years there, in 1969 he became director of the Frankfurt Ballet, where he caused a stir with his reinventions of classics such as Nutcracker and Romeo andJuliet. Four years later he began his tenure as director and chief choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet, and in 1978 he founded a school that now supplies more than 70 percent of the company’s dancers. He has created close to 140 ballets for his own company and as a guest choreographer for American Ballet Theatre, The National Ballet of Canada, and throughout Europe. His extensive list of honors includes dance and arts awards from the United States, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, Denmark, and several publications.
Given Neumeier’s tendency to couch ballet tradition in a stylized dramatic format, it’s not surprising to learn that he holds a degree in English literature and theater studies (from Marquette University in Milwaukee). He cites Japan’s Noh theater, a roughly 700-year-old form of musical drama with a fixed repertory and masked performers, as a favorite. Cultural influences permeate his ballets as well; for example, the Mermaid’s hairstyle, makeup, and costume derive from African, Balinese, and Japanese traditional styles. In considering making a ballet about the Mermaid’s story, Neumeier saw the potential for imaginative richness. Its magical premise, fanciful characters, and worlds gone askew make it a perfect vehicle for the kind of dance-theater he does so well.
But Neumeier’s first concern with any ballet is whether its story translates well into dance. “There are certain beautiful stories that are so dependent on words that even the essential conflict, the internal story, is not really possible to present in a nonverbal form of theater,” he says. So first he envisions what is possible to portray onstage. “I always think the job of a choreographer is not to put steps together; it is to create worlds,” he says.
But with this ballet he faced a huge obstacle: finding a way for the dancers who portray the Mermaid and her sisters to move as though they have tailfins, not legs. “How do you do that in a ballet?” he asks. “Because I knew I wanted to do this story, I agreed to do it before I knew the answer to that.” Then, while on tour in Japan with his company, he saw a Noh play, and in it was his answer. “There is a medieval kind of Japanese trousers, which are very, very long, and watching this man moving I thought, ‘That’s it—he has no legs!’” For his Mermaid, Neumeier designed wide-legged silk pants that add fluidity to her movements, pooling onto the floor when she stands and fanning out like fins when she is held aloft to “swim.”
Helping Neumeier define the distinctions between land, ship, and sea is Russian composer Lera Auerbach. Like the abstract waves of light that divide the stage visually, showing us whether we’re above the water’s surface or below it, the music too sets the scene, evoking both atmosphere and emotional tone. Auerbach, a prolific, award-winning musician (and a poet to boot), earned two degrees at The Juilliard School and completed a piano soloist program at the University of Music and Theater in Hanover, Germany. Her works, performed worldwide, include ballets, operas, symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and other chamber works.
In her score for The Little Mermaid, sweet and haunting melodies for violin flow into brusque passages of atonality and dissonance, making audible the strangeness and discomfort of being out of one’s element. Complex and changeable, with few normal harmonic progressions, in early rehearsals the score challenged the dancers, who can’t fully invest themselves in their roles until they have integrated movement and music into an unquestionable whole.
Beyond its setting, Mermaid offers more riches. Written between the lines of this fable about personal sacrifice was a far more touching story— Andersen’s own torment. According to Neumeier, many scholars believe that this story is probably Andersen’s most autobiographical work. The writer had a history of falling in love with women he could not have, and a few men as well. This tale of unrequited love could well be his own; shortly before he wrote it he had suffered greatly at the marriage of Edvard Collin, a love interest who did not return his affections. “So in a sense,” Neumeier says, “Andersen’s disappointment [about Collin] is the jumping-off point for The Little Mermaid.”
Neumeier has played on that fact, expanding the ballet’s story to include Andersen as the Poet (who is, like the Mermaid, in love with the Prince). Neumeier didn’t intend to depict Collin specifically; instead, he says “the historical facts inspire and help to create a new Prince—through movement—in the necessary present tense of dance. You can do a lot of research for a ballet, but even if your subject is a historical person, you cannot use intellectual findings as a recipe book for creation.”
But as integral to the story as the Poet and the Prince are, it’s the Mermaid who is at the heart of this ballet. And Principal Dancer Yuan Yuan Tan seems born to the role. She found a strong personal connection with the Mermaid, she says, in the character’s pursuit of “unconditional love. People dream about it. And [the Mermaid] tries to pursue it, and fails, but still believes in it. I think all of us do things we want to do, and if we try and fail, it’s okay; we keep going.”
Tan says she didn’t expect to experience any monumental transformations as a dancer at this point in her career. But dancing the Mermaid “brought my dance skill up to another level,” she says. “I have to say this role changed my career. I didn’t think I could have grown anymore; I thought, ‘I’m pretty comfortable with where I am.’ And now I express myself more and I have less worries about what I’m doing. I think I’ve come to a stage [where] I just feel happy to dance—not as an obligation, not as a job, but as a joy. The mind and soul—it’s all there. Life goes on, things change, and you grow and you learn. So it’s a combination of the whole. I’m much happier.”
Dancing the Mermaid requires an emotional investment on a level not often found in ballet. The character’s psychological journey is not only searing, it’s an endurance test for the dancer, who remains onstage for long stretches of time. With no chance to stand in the wings and prepare for the next emotionally devastating scene, it requires a mental presence that’s immediate and committed. “John told me, ‘Don’t act,’” Tan says. “He doesn’t want the girls all doing the same stuff, because everybody’s different. Because he’s the creator, he gives you the steps and the music to express yourself.” Within the choreographer’s parameters, the dancers brought their own feelings and experiences to the role. “One time he said to me, ‘I can see you’re working on it, and I can see a lot of improvement. And now [I want] more. I will tell you if it’s too much.’” In conveying what he wanted, Tan says, Neumeier didn’t need words. “I could see through his eyes what he wanted. And he saw my expressions in my body and knew what I was trying to say. So it’s communication without speaking.”
As the Mermaid makes her way through physically and emotionally disturbing terrain, we see the world through her eyes. And so everything underwater is beautiful and serene. “She is in her element [there]— gorgeously, beautifully, and belonging,” says Neumeier. “She knows this world, and yet she has a desire to go beyond that.” But what she discovers when she leaves her watery home “is that our dreams, our answered prayers are not always what we wanted—not always as we imagined them,” says the choreographer. “The earth world, which she so desires, can have some very sharp edges.”
Those edges become visible in the searing pain she endures as she walks on the feet she wanted so much, the bizarre behavior of the ship’s passengers, the nightmarish atmosphere to the Prince’s wedding, and the horror of being bound by ceilings and walls instead of free to roam an endless oceanic paradise. Toward the end of the ballet Neumeier reveals, in his set and in the Mermaid’s actions, the trap she has laid for herself.
And yet the Mermaid’s terrible sacrifice leads not to tragedy but to redemption, and that’s what makes this story compelling. “There is a sense of transcendence in the last dance [the Mermaid and the Poet] do together,” says Neumeier. “I think that the story is, in its essence, so beautiful. I don’t know of another story in literature with such a vision of love.”
And that’s the secret to The Little Mermaid’s power. Yes, it offers up stunningly original dancing and high theatricality. But audiences and dancers connect to it because of its story. Tan says she was shocked at the impact the ballet had on her. “After the premiere, the bow, I couldn’t stop crying. And I had to get John onstage, and he was crying, and he gave me a hug and we cried onstage. I would never have thought this would happen, but it was good.” Her face lights up in a huge smile. “Because my heart was out there.”
Header photo: Yuan Yuan Tan, Tiit Helimets, and Sarah Van Patten in John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid // © Erik Tomasson