Los Angeles/Regional Dance Review: THE LITTLE MERMAID (Hamburg Ballet at Segerstrom)

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by Tony Frankel on February 9, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

ALL HANS ON DECK

Don’t expect the Disneyfication of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid when you attend Hamburg Ballet’s rendition of the tragic 1836 fairy tale, which opened last night at Segerstrom Hall. This imaginative and handsome adaptation is more faithful to its dark and bittersweet source material. In John Neumeier’s version, created for the Royal Danish Ballet (2005) and revised in Hamburg (2007), we meet a “Poet,” the doppelganger for the actual Andersen, who was purported to be lamenting over the unrequited love for a male friend when he wrote Mermaid.

Tony Frankel Stage and Cinema's Review of Hamburg Ballet's THE LITTLE MERMAID at Segerstrom, Costa MesaThe opening begins in complete silence on the deck of a ship, thrillingly conceived like a shadow box with a giant blue fiber optic cord representing the waves below. The Poet’s desire is the handsome Captain of the ship, who is celebrating his wedding day with guests whose outfits are a fantastical reinvention in the style of The Great Gatsby. The dour and humorless Poet wipes away a tear with a grand gesture as Lera Auerbach’s score begins. The 1836 poet remains in black top hat and frock coat for the next two-and-a-half hours while the tale of the Mermaid is told in a 1930s-styled world, which makes for some gorgeous imagery. The synopsis explains that the Poet “falls into a sea of memories and fantasies,” but the merging of the actual Poet (Lloyd Riggins) with that of his creation throughout the ballet makes for some convoluted storytelling.

Tony Frankel Stage and Cinema's Review of Hamburg Ballet's THE LITTLE MERMAID at Segerstrom, Costa MesaThe dissonant, heavy, foreboding, and occasionally humorous score – which incorporates a theremin for a siren’s wail – contains a hint of a love theme, but not enough to tug at our heartstrings. In this tale, the Mermaid (Silvia Azzoni) does indeed swap her tail for a pair of legs, courtesy of a Sea Witch (Alexandre Riabko), yet the Prince (who resembles the Poet’s Captain) is not in love with her, but instead sees her as a playmate. The Mermaid is awkward on land and watches as The Prince (the commanding and distinguished Carsten Jung) falls in love and marries a Princess (the graceful and elegant Hélène Bouchet), leaving the Mermaid to die in bittersweet loneliness.

Tony Frankel Stage and Cinema's Review of Hamburg Ballet's THE LITTLE MERMAID at Segerstrom, Costa MesaWhile the locales and the storytelling can be somewhat mystifying, individual scenes, such as the Captain’s mates executing a daily exercise regime, can be delightful. The production succeeds with both expressionistic visuals and the lead dancers’ passionate and exceptional performances. The use of the Poet during the tale, however, tends to weigh down the first act, as his dour and saddened demeanor becomes one-note. Whether the chorus portrays fascinating sea creatures or party guests, a spotlight on the Poet steals the focus. Having him as a central character makes a melancholic tale even denser; the ballet, which is fully-realized in the second act, could have been streamlined and incorporated more humor.

Tony Frankel Stage and Cinema's Review of Hamburg Ballet's THE LITTLE MERMAID at Segerstrom, Costa MesaNeumeier, who is responsible for the choreography and all design elements, may have taken on too much ballast but it is nonetheless an impressive artistic achievement. The ballet is a resounding success when storytelling collides with design: The Prince’s Fellini-esque wedding, during which the Sea Witch endeavors but fails to have the Mermaid murder her love, is dramatic, lucid and exhilarating; in some ways, it harkens back to the collaborations of Robbins and Bernstein. The bridesmaids are clad in lovely magenta dresses, but that same outfit on the Mermaid – combined with her depressed expressions and white makeup – reminded me of Fosca in Sondheim’s Passion. It seems odd that the playful and loving relationship between the Prince and the Mermaid isn’t established until the end of the ballet, but once it occurs, we can truly empathize with the Mermaid’s plight which, along with the Poet’s, does not resonate until the final hour. Indeed, there is an immortalization of the Poet and “His Creation” at the end which exquisitely manifests the haunting beauty that is Neumeier’s vision.

Tony Frankel Stage and Cinema's Review of Hamburg Ballet's THE LITTLE MERMAID at Segerstrom, Costa Mesa

photos by Holger Badekow

The Little Mermaid
Hamburg Ballet
Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa
scheduled to end on February 10, 2013
free Preview Talks one hour prior
for tickets, call (714) 556-2787
or visit http://www.SCFTA.org

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