Ballet Review: ‘The Little Mermaid’: Han Christian Anderson’s Story

Ballet Review: ‘The Little Mermaid’: Han Christian Anderson’s Story
"The Little Mermaid" is currently performed by the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. (Todd Rosenberg)

CHICAGO—Those expecting the enchanting, and charming 1989 Disney version, as well as the many other theatrical presentations of “The Little Mermaid,” will be sorely disappointed by the Joffrey Ballet’s production that just closed its 67th season in Chicago. While Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairytale still propels the ballet’s narrative, the modern dance is a very dark, rather eerie, and depressing work.

The well-known story follows the journey of a young mermaid who falls in love with a handsome prince (here a sea captain) and saves him from drowning. When he awakens, the first face he sees is that of another woman, whom he mistakenly believes has saved him, and with whom he falls in love. Although the mermaid has sacrificed everything for him, her love becomes as painful as the legs she has exchanged for a tail.

The ballet interpretation by John Neumeier (who also designed the costumes, set, lighting, and choreographed the production) is going to jar those who grew up with the popular fable, and might confuse and frighten children.

This Production

While Anderson’s fantasy remains basically the same, there is a difference in that an extra character, that of a Poet—Andersen—who acts as the creator of the adaptation.
The Joffrey Ballet has added a character, a Poet, to their production of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid." (Kirin West)
The Joffrey Ballet has added a character, a Poet, to their production of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid." (Kirin West)

The Mermaid’s heroic journey between sea and land is presented with undulating white and blue lines representing sea waves against a bright, blue-lit stage; there’s not much contrast between the sea world and that of the land. Indeed, sometimes it’s not easy to know when the performers are in the depths of the deep or grounded on terra firma. The costumes, however, do identify the sea captain and sailors, dressed in white, and the Mermaid in body-clinging blue silk and skin-tight tan.

Although Scott Speck, the music director of the Joffrey, provides fine orchestration, it’s not enough to make the music engaging. There’s not a melodic romantic note to Lera Auerbach’s discordant score and the unnatural movements of Neumeiers’s choreography is disjointed and jerky. It’s almost painful to watch the contortions that the performers are put through.

The entire production lacks the elegance and grace we typically associate with grand ballets in the style of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and the “Nutcracker.”

Furthermore, while some scenes are easy to decipher, such as the one in which the ballet dancers sway back and forth as if they were a school of fish, there are other moments that are confusing, such as the one in which the Mermaid looks to be swimming as she is being held up by three men sporting black samurai dress. What do Japanese warriors have to do with a swimming mermaid? Or is this a scene from Bunraku theater--traditional Japanese puppet theater, in which handlers move a nearly life-size puppet? If so, why is the mermaid a puppet?

A scene from "The Little Mermaid" with Victoria Jaiani as the mermaid. (Cheryl Mann)
A scene from "The Little Mermaid" with Victoria Jaiani as the mermaid. (Cheryl Mann)

In addition, while the ballerinas and the danseurs don’t really get a chance to demonstrate their physical prowess and dance talents with grand poetry-in-motion pas de deux, pirouettes, leaps, and high kicks, the ballet dance troupe does bring elements of discipline, control, and physicality to their body movements.

The highlight performers include Stefan Goncalvez as the black-suited, introverted Poet; Yoshihisa Arai as the evil sea witch; Dylan Gutierrez as the handsome, captain-of-the-ship prince whom the Mermaid loves; and Anais Bueno as the girl who gets the prince.

Plus, as the featured Mermaid, Victoria Jaiani stands out, especially in the moment when her shaking legs convey the pain of her transition from the watery underworld to the human realm.

There are some strong themes in “The Little Mermaid,” which still stand out in the show. That includes sacrificing for an unrequited love; the unfairness of life; and the pain of stepping into a world in which one does not fit.

These moral lessons continue to make “The Little Mermaid” a generational favorite for both kids and adults. That’s why over the years, plays, musicals, movies, and ballets have been crafted from Andersen’s literary fiction. Most of those versions, though, have been inspirational and entertaining. That is, with the exception of Neumeiers’s “Mermaid.”

The ballet, which premiered in 2005 for the Royal Danish Ballet as a homage to Andersen’s 200th birthday, is, unfortunately, not the best homage to the popular author. Indeed, it’s the least appealing revival of the many Mermaid productions.

‘The Little Mermaid’ The Joffrey Ballet at the Lyric Opera of Chicago 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago Tickets: 312-386-8905 or Runs: 2 hours, 30 minutes Closes: April 30
As an arts writer and movie/theater/opera critic, Betty Mohr has been published in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Australian, The Dramatist, the SouthtownStar, the Post Tribune, The Herald News, The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and other publications.
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