The Little Mermaid from San Francisco Ballet
About the Program

John Neumeier — director and chief choreographer for Hamburg Ballet — blends dance, dramatic storytelling and spectacle into a unique interpretation of a classic Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. With choreography, sets, costumes, and lighting, all by Neumeier, this ballet—as much theater as it is dance—takes the dancers into deep emotional terrain. The acclaimed production of The Little Mermaid from San Francisco Ballet airs on Great Performances Friday, December 16 at 9 p.m. ET, as part of the PBS Arts Fall Festival (check local listings).

Those expecting a simple ballet adaptation of the Disney animated film will be surprised to find a complex and intense portrayal of unrequited love and the resilience of the human spirit.

San Francisco Ballet – the oldest professional ballet company in America – received Neumeier’s rare permission to present the American premiere in March 2010, which was met with ecstatic audience response, and hailed by critics as “mesmerizing” and “moving.” The two-act production features an evocative score by the young Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach which mixes haunting melodic passages with moody undercurrents atonality and dissonance.

Neumeier created the ballet for The Royal Danish Ballet in 2005 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Andersen’s birth, and a subsequent Hamburg Ballet version premiered in 2007. 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.”

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 and Juliet. 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.

“We are grateful to our co-partners and sponsors for the opportunity to broadcast this truly unique and dazzling production,” said SF Ballet Executive Director Glenn McCoy. “San Francisco Ballet was very proud to present the United States premiere of John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid, and we are thrilled that the Company has the opportunity to share it with wider audiences, not only nationally, but worldwide,” added McCoy.

San Francisco Ballet prima ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan (star of past Dance in America SFB productions such as Lar Lubovitch’s Othello and Helgi Tomasson’s Nutcracker) plays the title 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.”

Written between the lines of this fable about personal sacrifice was a far more personal dimension—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 unreciprocated 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 a representation of Andersen in the character of the Poet. Neumeier didn’t intend to depict Collin specifically; instead, he says “the historical facts inspire and help to create a new Prince.”

Cast: Yuan Yuan Tan (The Little Mermaid); Lloyd Riggins (The Poet); Tiit Helimets (The Prince); Sarah Van Patten (The Princess); Davit Karapetyan (The Sea Witch). Music Director & Principal Conductor: Martin West.

The Little Mermaid from San Francisco Ballet is a production of the San Francisco Ballet Association, NDR/ARTE and THIRTEEN for WNET, in association with BFMI and C Major Entertainment.  It is produced by Judy Flannery and Bernhard Fleischer.  For Great Performances, Joan Hershey is producer; Bill O’Donnell is series producer; and David Horn is executive producer. It was directed for television by Thomas Grimm.  It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray by Naxos.

Major funding for the telecast, which was filmed in May at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House and shot in high definition using eight cameras, is provided by The James Irvine Foundation, Lucy Jewett, Mrs. Jeannik Méquet Littlefield, the Bob Ross Foundation, Fang and Gary Bridge, the Helgi Tomasson Innovation Fund of the San Francisco Ballet Endowment Foundation, and Tim Dattels. Major funding for Great Performances is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, Vivian Milstein, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Starr Foundation, the Filomen M. D’Agostino Foundation, the Philip and Janice Levin Foundation.

  • Kellee






  • veronica

    whoa i live in everett, WA too! (well, mill creek. we’re neighbors!)
    what’s a gal like you doing in an internet like this?

  • Geth

    great ballet performance!
    I love the movement of the little mermaid’s arms, Yuan Yuan Tan.

  • Connie

    I live in Westchester County, NY. I love this ballet. I don’t know the story but the male dancer (pirate?looks something like a mime?) is extraordinary…as is all the cast. Thank you for broadcasting this true example of the art of dance.

  • Molly

    This ballet is beautiful but the editing is terrible. I can not even see the movement as for all the close ups of faces. I don’t watch ballet to watch faces but rather the art of the movement. You can not see what the corps de ballet is doing.

  • Kari

    I was immediatley pulled into its haunting story. I love the Little Mermaid. Its disturbing yet hypnotizing .. Music and Dance are the only mediums where you can loose yourself in your emotions and recover all at the same time.. Thank you for allowing us to fall into the sea and drown in our wonderful culture of art …

  • Sharon

    Who composed the music? Not a word about this in the summary!

  • Shelley Poston

    AMAZING choreography. Great casting. Interesting costuming, sets, music. Really appreciated seeing it on PBS. Thanks so much for bringing us this quality of intelligent, stimulating performance. Can’t find this anywhere else on TV. Keep up the great work!

  • Abbi

    Russian-American composer & pianist Lera Auerbach.

  • Linda

    A little too weird for me!

  • Shelley Poston

    Connie, I believe that is the sea witch (Davit Karapetyan) you are talking about. Yes, he was quite extraordinary. His control and ability to move every inch of his long arms, hands, legs, feet so fluidly and with such energy–breathtaking! The little mermaid (Yuan Yuan Tan) was also stunning in her abilities. Very talented troupe. So fun to watch!

  • Mary L. Poor

    What a wonderful performance. More credit in the above paragraphs about the production should have been given to the composer of the music. It was very discriptive as well as interestingly diverse. I was amazed that one local pbs station aired it here in Tennessee hillbilly country! Thank heavens for PBS.

  • Eva

    Where can I get a dvd of this?!

  • Kevin

    You can find the DVD on

  • Julia

    Devastatingly emotional performance! Yuan Yuan Tan channelled her role through every joint in her body and expression on her face. Choreographically brilliant in the story- telling and technically superior. Can you tell I loved it?!

  • Geth

    I agree with every comments up here… it is a great troup of ballet dancers, also musical and choregraphy !
    the only thing is, cameraman show sceneries that I would like to look longer.
    thanks PBS for this so beautiful ballet, great gift !

  • Sarah

    I caught just a little of this last night by chance and found Yuan Yuan Tan’s performance to be so amazingly gorgeous that I had to look up and find out what it was that I was watching last night. Now I’m sad, because I don’t see any plans to air this again locally. Is there a way that I can buy it or find it on demand online?

  • Alex


    The following sentence can be found in the summary above:

    The two-act production features an evocative score by the young Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach which mixes haunting melodic passages with moody undercurrents atonality and dissonance.

  • russ

    Not my idea of great ballet. The San Francisco company deserves better material than this. I was quite disappointed. Maybe it was the tv production that ruined this for me. Sorry to be the dissenter.

  • Juanita Hawk

    Hi, I’m so sorry I missed the Little Mermaid on PBS. Will it air again. I have a cousin in Calif. that has a grand daughter in it. I really need to see it. Let me know. Thanks for your station and will be looking for an answer. Juanita Hawk

  • Allegra

    This was a highly ambitious ballet that succeeded on a grand scale. While I initially felt it was too abstract and dissonant, I was drawn in further and further by the exquisite and emotional performance of Yuan Yuan Tan, and the fantastic story telling. This is not a ‘traditional’ ballet in any sense of the word. You’re not going to find a pretty pas de deux or solo in this performance, and you’re not going to be humming a few bars to the music. But the staging, the arm and facial expressions, the lovely backs are some of the best dance has to offer.

  • david ernst

    Dear Kevin and other viewers,

    If you enjoyed this performance of The Little Mermaid from San Francisco Ballet, we encourage you to visit where the program is available on both DVD and blu-ray. Brand new ballets are very expensive to produce and buying the DVD or blu-ray directly from PBS enables us to fund and support more exquisite dance programming like The Little Mermaid for upcoming seasons. We’re so glad you enjoyed the show and thank you for your support.

  • John

    Yuan Yuan Tan is a superb dancer and actress, The premise of the ballet is interesting but not strictly historical. H.C. Andersen was fundamentally straight and his passion for a couple of men, after he washed out with a hald-dozen women, appears never to have been Platonic and never consummated. But the San Franciso Ballet performance itself was striking and impressive. Yuan Yuan Tan made it all work artistically even if was very dubious history.

  • Robin Smith

    Thank you Great Performances and public television for showing this phenomenal ballet!

    The first act was mind blowing. Costumes were amazing and really played to the sea creatures. Sets appeared simple but very effective. The music was haunting. We had not planned to watch, but were mesmerized for the whole 2 1/2 hours.

    I grew up on classical ballet, but I love to be surprised. I’ve lived in Alaska for 30 years so I rarely see high quality productions of theater or ballet. This piece ranks with Appalachian Spring, productions of the Dance Theater of Harlem and Bourne’s Swan Lake. Thank you again for giving me the privilege to see it.

  • Bika

    Here the mermaid rescues a prince and falls for him, so much so that she’ll trade her fish features for human legs so she can live on terra firma. But Neumeier, the director of Hamburg Ballet, doesn’t allow her a happily-ever-after destiny.

    Yuan Yuan Tan’s Fragile Mermaid
    Yuan Yuan Tan is a spectacular and riveting mermaid, her lithe body and limbs arching and stretching like a contortionist’s.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.