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.