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Ballet review: Joffrey's Little Mermaid returns to darker original, a complex reflection on desire
by Scott C. Morgan
2023-04-27

This article shared 3589 times since Thu Apr 27, 2023
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The Little Mermaid

Choreographer: John Neumeier; Score: Lera Auerbach. At: Joffrey Ballet at Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. Tickets: 312-386-8905 or Joffrey.org; $36-$200. Runs through April 30

It's likely that many parents bringing small kids to see the Chicago premiere of choreographer John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid will have missed this disclaimer in the Joffrey Ballet's season brochure: "Not recommended for children under 12."

So, all those kids in princess party dresses will not be getting any calypso-singing crabs or a Hollywood happy ending, as dished out in Disney's 1989 animated film version of The Little Mermaid. With the Joffrey, these kids will instead be faced with many of the harsher elements of Hans Christian Andersen's original 1837 fairytale.

For example, when the Little Mermaid becomes human, each step initially causes her physical pain akin to walking atop dagger blades. And spoiler alert: When the Little Mermaid fails to marry (and then murder) her intended human prince, she dies and transforms into sea foam.

For his take on The Little Mermaid, Neumeier confidently wades deep into these dark and disturbing waters dreamed up by Andersen. Neumeier, a Wisconsin native, created his dance adaptation of The Little Mermaid in 2005 with the Royal Danish Ballet to honor the 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth. Prior to Chicago, the ballet has also been staged in other cities like Hamburg (Neumeier's German artistic home since 1973) and San Francisco where it has its U.S. debut in 2010 and was filmed for PBS.

Similar to his other story ballets adaptations like Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie (seen earlier this season in Chicago on tour by Hamburg Ballet), Neumeier is keen to bring any gay subtext to the forefront. Hence an overt queer framing device for The Little Mermaid.

Neumeier stages the whole fairytale as seen through the eyes of "The Poet." This character dreams up his tragically lovelorn title creature as a coping mechanism for his own pining and unrequited love for a handsome and newly wedded sea captain named Edvard.

The Poet is onstage for nearly every splash and step as "His Creation" takes drastic measures, so the Little Mermaid's tragedy is thoroughly entwined with his own heartbreak. There's little concrete evidence to prove that Andersen was gay (the famed 19th century Danish writer never married). But Neumeier's way of hedging his bets is via the fictional Poet proxy.

But more importantly, Neumeier proves himself yet again with The Little Mermaid to be a masterful storyteller in movement. Neumeier and his many collaborators know how to deliver an emotional gut-punch for anyone who ever experienced the pains and longing of unrequited love.

Composer Lera Auerbach has created an original score that is lushly dark and very cinematic. It's a sonic delight, as played by the Lyric Opera Orchestra under conductor Scott Speck, and it helps to illustrate both of the ballet's contrasting environs.

There's danced undersea flora and fauna with several silky Japanese theater flourishes, and the human world is filled with athletic sailors, curious convent girls and super-stylish wedding guests decked out in mid-20th century fashions. Neumeier is also credited as the ballet's costume, set and lighting designer (with Jim French credited as assistant lighting designer), and the overall stage worlds prove to be very accessible to contemporary audiences.

Nowhere is that accessibility more telling when the newly human Little Mermaid is pushed around in a wheelchair and is confronted with the height of human standards of beauty and sophistication—as embodied by the Joffrey's elegant corps de ballet. True, one can glean a campy reference to Bette Midler's mobility challenged mermaid Delores De Lago, but in this context it's a crushing realization for the Little Mermaid of what she is up against in the human world.

It's wonderful to see the company of Joffrey Ballet dancers once again performing Neumeier's work, since they all paired so well for the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new co-production of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice in 2017. For the Chicago premiere of The Little Mermaid, the re-staging duties are credited to Niurka Moredo and Lloyd Riggins, and the Joffrey dancers go all out.

In the opening night cast, Victoria Jaiani captured every painful contortion and pantomimed cry of despair as the lithe Little Mermaid. Stefan Goncalvez as The Poet also brought forth the danced dynamics of his character's existence as a creative outsider.

As Edvard/The Prince, Dylan Gutierrez got across his being as a manly hunk who is not aware of the devastating effect that his looks have over others. And as the rival Princess, Anais Bueno embodied a carefree, if unintentionally callous, young woman whose beauty helps her to win what she wants.

Yoshihisa Arai was also marvelous as the conniving Sea Witch whose magical bargains all get stacked against the Little Mermaid.

As The Little Mermaid once again becomes a dominant cultural touchstone with Disney's forthcoming live-action remake coming to movie theaters next month, its gratifying to have another interpretation that hews closer to Andersen's original. The Joffrey Ballet's Chicago premiere of Neumeier's The Little Mermaid is a modern masterpiece of storytelling movement that finds much beauty in the tragedy of love that is not reciprocated.


This article shared 3589 times since Thu Apr 27, 2023
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