Not all story ballets are created equal. In most cases, a flimsy tale is an excuse for the dancing. But San Francisco Ballet’s production of John Neumeier’s “The Little Mermaid” is the opposite, clinging tightly to the tragic Hans Christian Andersen story on which it is based.
Ballet as an art form has always had close ties to pantomime, and Neumeier utilizes gesture to its full extent in this piece. With Part 1 boasting 11 scenes, the evolution of the tale makes use of a literalism not often associated with contemporary work.
Dancers sway, undulate and shimmy to evoke the essence of the sea, and mime sequences are frequent, if not constant, exemplified by the almost vaudevillian role of The Poet, portrayed opening night by the theatrically adept Pascal Molat.
Neumeier, an American who is director and chief choreographer of The Hamburg Ballet, is known for tendencies toward the theatrical and story-centric side of ballet. First premiered by the Royal Danish Ballet in 2005, “The Little Mermaid” was created to honor the 200th anniversary of Andersen’s birth.
The ballet uses the breadth of the company, with the stage heavily populated for most scenes. Wedding guests, sailors, naval officers, boat passengers, stewards and bridesmaids are just some of the characters above sea level, not to mention the magic shadows, the mermaid’s sisters, and dancers who represent the sea.
But the bustling flurry of the production always comes down to one central figure, the title character. Guilty of nothing more than an innocent, earnest love, the mermaid is victim to her heart’s desires.
One of life’s greatest tragedies, the narrative of unrequited love is the pinnacle of the work and its greatest strength.
The role requires a combination of wide-eyed naivté, determination and raw vulnerability. Yuan Yuan Tan is a master of this potent dramatic elixir, transforming a tale of fantasy into one of naked, emotional reality.
Tan, who premiered in the role last year to great acclaim at San Francisco Ballet’s unveiling of the work to American audiences, begins as an other worldly creature, far from human.
By the end she embodies piercingly pure human emotion, and the piece triumphs as Neumeier’s literal theatrics communicate the abstract.
The ever-chivalrous Tiit Helimets performs the eccentric Prince with playfulness, while Davit Karapetyan is authoritative as the Sea Witch. Sarah Van Patten is a delightfully coy Princess and bride.
Lera Auerbach’s rich and often dissonant score, expertly conducted by Martin West, appropriately amplifies the tale, incorporating bombast and the carnivalesque alongside a sensual use of strings.
San Francisco Ballet Program 8
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. May 3 and May 5-6; 7:30 p.m. May 4; 2 and 8 p.m. May 7; 2 p.m. May 8
Tickets: $20 to $260
Contact: (415) 865-2000; www.sfballet.org