Hamburg Ballet: The Little Mermaid
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The Real Little Mermaid

By Gary Smith

There are only a handful of choreographers who can weave great story-telling from classical ballet steps. John Neumeier is one of them. With dance steps alone, he can make the body speak in a language every bit as complex as the most poetic set of words. Like choreographers Sir Kenneth MacMillan and John Cranko, Neumeier is a man who makes stories dance. The Little Mermaid, Neumeier's masterful telling of Hans Christian Andersen's dark, romantic tale, is tribute to his genius.

Just don't expect the Disney version.

The American-born, Hamburg-based choreographer has a capacity for making feet talk. This is abundantly clear in The Little Mermaid, Neumeier's compelling, multi-layered dance drama about love, mortality and the challenge of being different.

Photos: Holger Badekow

Neumeier has always cleaved to a romantic nature. His signature work, Lady of the Camellias, is drenched with drama, a story of love forged, lost, then sadly remembered. His Seagull, a dramatic dance telling of Chekhov's moody tale, is full of the folly of youth, the waste of love and the yearning of the spirit to fly forever free. His Nijinsky—the desperate story of a dancer trapped by convention, born to soar skyward like Icarus, but felled by wings singed by fire—is heart-breaking.

With such a legacy of dance drama you would hardly expect Neumeier to turn The Little Mermaid into a story of honeyed sweetness. Andersen's tale of a Sailor, a Mermaid and a lovesick Poet is set on a stormy collision course that takes us to the heart of what it means to love. Such a wind-lashed journey is fodder for Neumeier's dramatic integrity. Refusing to Disneyfy this dramatic piece, the iconoclastic dance-maker brings Andersen's story to life through inspired choreography.

A highly theatrical work, the ballet takes us from the watery darkness of the mermaid's world, to the elegant pomp of a ballroom festooned for a royal wedding.

On a more surreal level, it transports us to a magic meeting ground where the Poet, who longs to be immortal, meets the Mermaid who longs for mortality. This star-crossed meeting is what gives the ballet its powerful sense of fate and destiny rolled into one. Neumeier's use of Japanese story-telling techniques as well as a sense of imagery borrowed from Kabuki Theatre, gives the work an element of otherworldliness.

In case you think Neumeier's version is fraught with drama at the expense of humanity, it's not. There is a thread of humor here that adds important dimension to the sadness of the tale. There is also a compelling sense of the way love shapes and defines us for earthly good. Neumeier understands that love changes everything, and doesn't always cleave to the predictable. He realizes the way it can take us in new directions without ever causing us to compromise our innate goodness.

Neumeier knows, too, that he's taking a child's morality tale and liberating it from saccharine images created on celluloid. Like all Andersen stories, The Little Mermaid is a cautionary tale. It stands alongside Anderson's The Red Shoes, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Ugly Duckling and all those familiar stories the Danish author wrote about daring to dream.

Though children will love the visual energy and thrust of Neumeier's story telling, it is to adults he is presenting his greatest challenge: Believe in love in its many faces, feel for others, lock out preconceived notions of what might be.

Premiered in 2005 by The Royal Danish Ballet, Neumeier's The Little Mermaid will be performed at the Center by the Hamburg Ballet. Neumeier has been artistic director and visionary of this astounding company for 40 years and is celebrating this season in Hamburg, Germany, with a repertoire that offers most of his full-length works. In addition, a handful of North American theaters will have the pleasure of hosting his incredible company. The Center is one of them.

The post-modern tale of a Poet who cries for loss of love, only to have his teardrop transmogrified as the sweetly innocent Mermaid is requisite viewing for ballet fans who long to experience the new face of ballet. It's a fine example of the contemporary fields of European arts that have revolutionized the art of ballet story telling.

At its heart, The Little Mermaid is a love story that reaches beyond borders, beyond conventional bonds. Always moving, always tastefully drawn, it is filled with a lush romantic spirit that survives even its darkest moments. Like Matthew Bourne's all-male Swan Lake, his blitzkrieg Cinderella and Christopher Wheeldon's feisty Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Neumeier's ballet cleaves to the notion that light is the halo for darkness. It appears only after we have walked through the unknown. When we are forced into stormy waters in this telling of Hans Christian Andersen's tale, it is with the understanding that there is a waiting shoreline beyond the next set of waves.

Gary Smith is an international dance writer. His work appears in Ballet Review, Dance Europe and Dance International Magazine.

Dates: February 8 – 10, 2013
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Support for the Center's International Dance Series provided by:
Audrey Steele Burnand Endowed Fund for International Dance
The Segerstrom Foundation Endowment for Great Performances

With special underwriting from:
William J. Gillespie

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