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John Neumeier’s “The Little Mermaid” at San Francisco Ballet

John Neumeier’s “The Little Mermaid” at SF Ballet

Carol Benet

For a repeat of the 2010 U.S. premiere of John Neumeier’s “The Little Mermaid”, the SF Ballet in Program 7 features the astounding Wanting Zhao dancing the title role.  And not only does she dance this role, but her acting is extraordinary as she rises to stardom in the world famous SF Ballet.

This is the Hans Christian Anderson’s fable about the mermaid who falls in love with a human and is sorely disappointed as the object of her love marries another human. “The Little Mermaid” is the sad story of unrequited love.  With Wanting Zhao’s interpretation of the the role, the tale translates into one of the most poignant ballets of the entire season.  It is simply riveting thanks to her dancing and acting.

The Poet (Tilt Helmets) introduces in the Prologue with the outline of the story of a love triangle.  Henriette and Edvard are the human lovers and the Mermaid falls in love with Edvard (Luke Ingham).  Edvard magically turns into The  Prince who is also the captain of a yacht.  Henriette (Dores Andrè) becomes his bride The Princess.  With the help of the Sea Witch (Benjamin Freemantle) the Little Mermaid’s tail turns in human legs and she leaves the world of the sea and enters the yacht cleverly replicated by a miniature yacht floating above the set.

After The Prologue, in Scene One, a wedding hints at the plot to follow. Scene 2 takes place at the bottom of the sea,  a gorgeous setting of underwater splendor, familiar to any  Scuba diver in tropical waters.

Next we are on board a ship that seems like the Royal Danish Yacht.  This is just one of the references to Denmark where this ballet received its first World Premiere by The Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen in 2005.  Other Danish moments are evident such as the large chandelier in the ball scenes that is a copy of one by the famous Danish architect Poul Henningsen, known by his initials, ”PH”.  I know because I have bought two of them in Copenhagen. The ballet’s premiere celebrated the 200 anniversary of Denmark’s most famous poet.

The mermaid’s unrequited love for the Prince/Edvard is one of the most tragic in all literature. Wanting Zhao’s desperation to the point of madness is almost untenable as she physically expresses herself, at times in a claustrophobic room whose black and grey atmosphere is right out of film noir.  Neumeier not only created the choreography but he designed the sets and costumes.  He, an American whose whole career has been in Europe, is Director of the Hamburg Ballet and is one of the most important figures in the world of ballet.

The set and costumes for the wedding scenes are gorgeous and the large cast with underwater creatures, bridesmaids, sailors, officers, passengers, stewards, wedding guests fill the stage with activity.  This is the ballet to see this year. Composer  Lera Auerbach’s music contributes to a truly fascinating work of art.

“The Little Mermaid” runs through April 28, 2019. SFballet.org 415 865 2000.