San Francisco Ballet’s 2011 ‘The Little Mermaid’ Review: A Tail of Two Mermaids, Part 1

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(Note: Casting for The Little Mermaid is now posted for the entire ‘Mermaid’ run. See links at the bottom of this review)

A Tail of Two Mermaids, Part 1

San Francisco Ballet’s 2011 production of John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid once again brought the house to its feet on Opening Night. Even those not in love with this ballet (and there are some) find it difficult to not stand in appreciation of the artistry of SFB’s Dancers. 

Though opinions regarding the Ballet itself differ amongst my Dance writing peers and Dance critics, there can be no doubt that everyone agrees that the excellence in dramatic portrayals is worthy of high praise.

Yuan Yuan Tan’s reprisal of her ‘Mermaid’, the role that earned her an Isadora Duncan Dance Awards nomination in 2010, is as soulful and heartbreaking as we remember. If anything, the depth of her ‘Mermaid’ characterization has matured this season and we are the fortunate witnesses to her ever-increasing dramatic talents.

Act 1’s underwater realm is the perfect vehicle for Yuan Yuan Tan’s long limbs and sinuous fluidity; she seems born to dance this role and it is here that she first seduces us.  One audience member, seeing her first ‘Mermaid’, was astonished at the “boneless” quality of ‘YY’ (I believe her exact words were “I have never seen anyone so boneless in my life”).

I have expounded upon the parallel story lines and richly detailed visual interest in my ‘Mermaid 2011 Preview’ (see links below), but it might be of interest to comment here on the equally multi-layered aspects of Neumeier’s own designs in costuming his Mermaid.  

Act 1’s Mermaid is clad in no less than three layers of costuming; one is the outer costume with its long ‘tail’ (wide-legged Japanese-style ‘pants’ that are sewn closed at the bottom, extending well beyond her feet, and that must be carefully manipulated by herself and the ‘Magic Shadows’ that carry her ‘swimming’ through her oceanic home), another is a full length unitard of shiny white and turquoise ‘scales’, seen by the audience for only a brief minute or two, and the final layer is a flesh colored leotard underneath it all, meant to convey her absolute nakedness when the ‘Sea Witch’ takes her beautiful tail for ransom, leaving her alone to struggle with her new human legs, something our Mermaid never overcomes in her new earthbound existence.

The fact that our Mermaids, Yuan Yuan Tan on this night and Sarah Van Patten on others, have to navigate through most of Act 1 without tripping on or getting tangled in the ‘tail’, is something to appreciate in itself. The fact that they also are wrapped in so many layers, is another tribute to their total dedication to the role; surely these layers must make their performance uncomfortably hot. And though our Mermaids must negotiate carefully through their own choreography in Act 1, it must be said that the ‘Sea Witch’ and his ‘Magic Shadows’ must also learn to carry our Mermaid aloft, while presenting her tail in its full splendor and without allowing it to interfere with the choreography.   

Davit Karapetyan made his triumphant return to the War Memorial Opera House stage, after a lengthy absence, a memorable one. No sign of injury was apparent in his spectacular portrayal as the ‘Sea Witch’, a role requiring athleticism and strength. Davit’s purity of line is never sacrificed with his bravura attack, and last night’s committed tour de force performance added extra spice to Neumeier’s already powerful choreography for this role. His fans can rest assured that this Dancer, one of SFB’s finest, is Back with a capital ‘B’.

Where Davit’s ‘Sea Witch’ is terrifying, wrought with Faustian eloquence, and full of nightmarish demonic characterization, Tiit Helimets’ ‘Prince’ and Sarah Van Patten’s ‘Princess’ are full of a ridiculous bliss in their sheltered and pampered little worlds. 

Tiit Helimets has long been known as SFB’s premiere ‘Danseur Noble’ and we have grown quite accustomed to his skilled partnering, clean precision, unmannered neoclassicism, spot-on dramatic portrayals, and ‘Noble’ demeanor as Siegfried, Albrecht, and Nutcracker Prince (not to mention his regal bearing in SFB’s Balanchine repertory). But there is another facet of this accomplished Dancer that this writer finds most endearing: his ability to be somewhat of a comedic genius.

Tiit’s comedic talents first surfaced at SFB in Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird, when he danced the role of the goofy ‘Prince Ivan’, surprising those of us only used to seeing him as the elegant ‘Noble’ type. His well-rounded dramatic talents are often remarked upon and it is no wonder that Neumeier chose him for the role of ‘Edvard’/’Prince’ in his The Little Mermaid. Could there be a sunnier disposition?

The role of ‘Prince’ requires stamina (he has major pas de deux’ with both the ‘Mermaid’, with its incredibly difficult lifts, and the ‘Princess’), dramatic skill, and the ability to shine in a portrayal of blind ignorance. It is precisely this ignorance that brings home the Mermaid’s anguish. Without this blindness as a foil of opposites, the pain of our Mermaid would be less substantial. The thoughtless actions of the ‘Prince’ are searing to the audience, as well as to the Mermaid, and Tiit plays his part perfectly. We cannot hate such a bright and ridiculous Prince, but we are forced to question his apparent ignorance. It gives us pause-are we also so wrapped up in our own lives that we could miss someone so evidently heartbroken?

Our perfectly pampered Princess, danced by Sarah Van Patten, also one of SFB’s noteworthy dramatic ballerinas, is another testimony to ‘ignorance is bliss’. Or shall we say ‘if I pretend I don’t see it, it will go away’. Again, we cannot hate this pretty little Princess; Sarah makes her lovely, coquettish, and charming enough to catch our eye…and the eye of the ‘Prince’. We cannot blame him for wanting her, nor her for wanting him back. Again, this contrast with the Mermaid’s unrequited love makes the Mermaid’s predicament all the more difficult for us to bear. 

Sarah Van Patten, along with Neumeier’s choreography, gives her ‘Princess’ a playful perky quality that challenges us to remember she is capable of so much more than meets our Opening Night eyes; Sarah is, in fact, our other dramatic Mermaid and seems to be repeating her amazing feat of last season-performing in each and every performance of this ballet, alternating between the roles of ‘Mermaid’ and Princess’, an endeavor I find medal-worthy.

Without Tiit Helimets and Sarah Van Patten’s convincingly lighthearted portrayals of ‘Prince’ and ‘Princess’, we wouldn’t find certain aspects of this ballet so horrifying. When the Prince thoughtlessly gives the Mermaid’s conch shell (the only reminder she has from her oceanic home) to his ‘Princess’, we are chilled to the bone. And when she, in turn, nonchalantly passes it off to a party guest, we feel the signifance of the loss in the pits of our stomachs.

Pascal Molat reprised his role as ‘Poet’ with all the pathos and sensitivity required for us to relate to his ‘otherness’. Yes, the theme could be considered homosexual, if you want to be so base as to mention it. It deserves mentioning that our ‘Poet’ is gay, and yet it doesn’t. Because this ballet is not about one man’s unacknowledged and unreturned passion for another man-it is about the loneliness of being ‘other’ and the sacrifices one might make for love. We can all relate to loss. Therein lies the power of Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid.  

Pascal’s ‘Poet’ rings true in every gesture and expression and we are fortunate to have him, yet another of SFB’s fine dramatic artists, reprise his role. As the ‘Poet’ is actually the Creator of everything we are witnessing, we are as bound to him as he is to his Creation, the ‘Mermaid’. It is a testament to Pascal’s intelligence and skill that we never lose sight of this ballet’s heart. He is present throughout the ballet, never interfering, yet sometimes participating, in the action, has his own moments to dance, and is the spiritual center of this ballet. We identify with his position, regardless of his sexual persuasion. He exemplifies every broken heart we have ever suffered, every unreturned look of longing, and every heedless sacrifice we have ever made.

And yet it is the ‘Mermaid’ herself, the pitiable creature who gives up her paradisical home for a prison of enduring pain and loss, that brings us to our knees…and finally to our feet at the performance’s end, in adoration for Yuan Yuan Tan’s searing portrayal. ‘Mermaid’ is arguably the crowning achievement of YY’s career (though this writer finds it necessary to mention she’s been at the top of her game for years now) and not a fouetté in sight. 

Our two Mermaids, Yuan Yuan Tan and Sarah Van Patten, are probably the biggest reasons to see this ballet. ‘YY’ (as she is known affectionately to friends) simply IS the Mermaid. When one sees her beautiful and fully realized hypnotic performance, one cannot imagine anyone else in this physically and dramatically challenging role. Quite simply, she’s astonishing.

Though it would be incorrect to pronounce that everyone loves this ballet, I can safely say that everyone who sees it shows great appreciation of the Dancers’ fine performances. SFB’s talented Dancers give great attention to Neumeier’s every nuance and show every reason for this Company to be proud.

Corps Dancer Gaetano Amico, and Soloists Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Garen Price Scribner (a ‘Sea Witch’ himself, he will reprise that role on Friday 5/6/11), as the ‘Magic Shadows’, were remarkably sinister and very attentive ‘partners’ to Mermaid and her tail.

Soloist Elizabeth Miner, showing us all the reasons we missed her, was a welcome sight in her role as one of the Mermaid’s sisters; her dancing had a fierce supernatural quality in Act 2, costumed as she was in a parody of the Mermaid’s first disastrous efforts to blend in.

One particular ensemble was again an audience favorite: the ‘Naval Officers’ and ‘Sailors’ in their athletic and hilarious ‘exercise’ bit. My eye always goes to Soloist James Sofranko and Corps Dancer Matthew Stewart of the Naval Officers (their equally enthusiastic peers are Corps Dancer Diego Cruz, and Soloists Isaac Hernandez and Hansuke Yamamoto), who dance with such convincing gusto it’s difficult not to laugh. Daniel Baker, Benjamin Stewart, Raymond Tilton, Sebastian Vinet, and Luke Willis completed the hilarious ensemble with their silly (and buff) ‘Sailors’ shenanigans. The audience broke into applause several times at their antics. There’s alot of hilarity in Neumeier’s choreography here, and much is to be said for the ridiculous black socks.  

Of the many talented Corps Dancers, Clara Blanco’s wide-eyed ‘School friend of the Princess’ always has me in stitches, Luke Willis and Myles Thatcher increasingly grab my attention by making the most out of their opportunities as ‘Passengers’ and ‘Wedding Guests’, Dores Andre and Madison Keesler are magnetic with their enthusiastic ‘Bridesmaids’, infused with all those necessary wonderful pretty-in-pink girly qualities (it’s not that they do it, it’s that they do it so convincingly), and the majesty of Charlene Cohen in that gorgeous red gown, as a ‘Passenger’ on board the ship, always gives the party that femme fatale flair.

Part 2 of this review, A Tail of two Mermaids, will be published after my next viewing with the ‘Sarah Van Patten as Mermaid’ cast. Included will be commentary on Lera Auerbach’s score, and some interesting ‘Mermaid’ facts gleaned from last night’s ‘Meet the Artist’ talk with SFB’s Ballet Master and Assistant to the Artistic Director, Bruce Sansom.

Tomorrow night, I will discuss the ‘Mysterious Disappearance of the Third Mermaid Cast’, as everyone is concerned about why Lorena Feijoo is not debuting her Mermaid this season; to squash those rumors in their embryo state, it is not a reflection of anyone’s abilities, nor anything scandalous in nature. More than anything, it’s an unfortunate circumstance related to scheduling and timing. Stay tuned for the story tomorrow. 

Click here to read Odette’s comprehensive ‘Mermaid 2011 Preview’ with photos, videos, Program Notes, and 2010 ‘Mermaid’ reviews.

Always check SFB’s site for the most current Casting here.

Read ‘Costuming a Mermaid’ by Tamara Straus here.

See additional 2010 ‘Mermaid’ photos here.

Read the ‘Story of The Little Mermaid’ here.

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One Response to San Francisco Ballet’s 2011 ‘The Little Mermaid’ Review: A Tail of Two Mermaids, Part 1

  1. michael mcgraw says:

    your review is spot on. congratulations on seeing what is truly there. a most informed review.

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