John Neumeier’s 2005 ballet The Little Mermaid, receiving its DC première tonight courtesy of Hamburg Ballet, is an exquisitely layered story, told with profound psychological insight, and a burning intensity which does not allow us rest for a moment in fairytale cliche. In the beginning there was the poet, a black figure against a blue ribbon of light, and a string solo.

Silvia Azzoni (The Little Mermaid) and Lloyd Riggins (The Poet) © Holger Badekow
Silvia Azzoni (The Little Mermaid) and Lloyd Riggins (The Poet)
© Holger Badekow
The constant authorial figure, Lloyd Riggins, shaped by his own personal tale of loss and in turn shaping his characters, meant that we were at once in the mode of Brechtian alienation. The conceit was an invitation to reflect on the nature of artistic genesis, on the intermingling of autobiographical and fictional narratives, and on the suffering empathy between the artist and his creation. And what a creation! His Little Mermaid, the mesmerizing Silvia Azzoni, performed her tragic role with extraordinary maturity, and an authenticity which was – at times – unbearably painful. How well she caught the sinuous energy of her life below seas – the whipped turn of her head, the swish of her hands, the dazzling graceful flow of her long blue ‘tail’ (how she managed to give this legless illusion with such speed and dexterity and not trip was mystifying). How alluring was her mischief, her awakening appetite for the handsome human stranger (a cad performed by Carsten Jung), her flirtation.

For all the marine frolicking against the undulating electric blue waves, neither her interpretation nor that wonderful score by Lera Auerbach let us forget the omnipresent sense of foreboding, made visible in the violent interjections of evil agency in the person of The Sea Witch (Karen Azatyan) and his henchmen. Azatyn brought an extraordinary preternatural energy to the stage, an astounding sense of rhythm, and in the scene of the Mermaid’s transformation (or deformation), one of the most brutal scenes of violation I have seen in the ballet. Her flowing blue fabrics were unbound from her body (fabric plays a huge role in this staging as metaphor for skin/identity) and, undone, she becomes a trembling figure in blue leotard, her feet hardly holding her, crucified by her naïve aspirations to love. And then further violation is to come as she is stripped again, to a skin-colored bodysuit. I couldn’t help thinking of Lear – and the “bare, forked animal” that we all are underneath. The irony of holding up on front of her flailing new body the staid grey gabardine dress that the human ‘competitor’ princess (Carolina Aguero) is aching indeed.

Silvia Azzoni (The Little Mermaid) © Holger Badekow
Silvia Azzoni (The Little Mermaid)
© Holger Badekow

From that moment on, the Mermaid lives the hell of misidentity and watching Azzoni’s every agony was to see great art in action. We see her rough movements, her jerky new body, the moments of elation, and the pain of having feet. We see her impotent in a wheelchair, forced to look on the promenade of flirting couples. We witness her humiliations – the uncomprehending Prince with his ‘chin up chucking her cheek’ gesture; we ache to see the infantilised figure of fun in a sailor suit, and in her preposterous pink bridesmaid attire, caught in the chiffon fabric of the bride’s veil, the litheness all gone, replaced by a jutting head and bowed shoulders. Perhaps most tragic of all is to see her in a trompe-l'œil box room in the grey gabardine dress and wearing pointe shoes, banging against the walls of her confinement, realizing to its full extent the prison-cell of her new humanity, and later to see her undoing the ribbons of her shoes and flinging them off. There is plenty to ponder here – about gender, and physicality, and indeed the ballet itself.

Silvia Azzoni (The Little Mermaid) © Kiran West
Silvia Azzoni (The Little Mermaid)
© Kiran West

But Neumeier’s is too deft a hand to neglect the quirky even as he embraces the dark tragic potential of this work. There are many touches of humour and lightness, not least, the staid looking figure of the poet in Victorian black and top hat, scurrying across the stage, protecting himself with a pointless umbrella.

The lighting and set and costumes were all brilliantly conceived – all the work of Neumeier, and a feast for the eyes. For all the excellence of the supporting cast, the stage belongs to the poet and the Mermaid. There is a shared gesture they have observable from the start, a hand placed over the mouth; both a kiss and a concealment, the suppression of a passion, a voice unspoken. The epilogue which provides some sort of resolution was a pas de deux (can one even call it that?) which begins when the poet lies down beside her destroyed form in the prison room of her humanity, and then, backed by a stunning effects of falling stars, they rise up, lifted high above the stage, arms out, a narrative of crucifixion, but somehow a redemptive one.