From left, Ulrik Birkkjaer, Yuan Yuan Tan and Wei Wang perform opening night of San Francisco Ballet’s production of “The Little Mermaid.” (Courtesy Erik Tomasson)

Yuan Yuan Tan stunning in San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Little Mermaid’

Dancer shines in John Neumeier’s dark, lavish take on fairy tale

Yuan Yuan Tan simply dazzles as the title character in San Francisco Ballet’s Program 7 production of John Neumeier’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Her transformation from an elegant sea creature to an agonized human, tortured by unrequited love, is palpable in the lush, dark psychological interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale that opened Friday at the War Memorial Opera House.

The convoluted version of the story (the production premiered in 2005 at Royal Danish Ballet) is unfamiliar to Americans weaned on the bubbly Disney cartoon.

And there’s no calypso in Lera Auerbach’s somber, string-filled score (featuring Cordula Merks on violin and Carolina Eyck on theremin).

Yet while the plot details – which dovetail stories of a sad poet separated from his lover with the mermaid, who trades her tail for legs to be with a lover, a prince – are confusing, the characters’ despair is evident. (To fully appreciate the show, reading the program notes is recommended.)

Designed as well as choreographed by Neumeier, the lavish, gorgeous production is a classy, visual treat throughout.

At the outset, The Poet (Ulrik Birkkjaer) in top hat and tail coat, is perched against the backdrop of a huge page on the deck of a ship, witnessing the marriage of his beloved, an officer, Edvard (Aaron Robison) to Henriette (Sasha De Sola). He falls overboard into the darkly lit sea, filled with graceful creatures in flowing gowns, and the mermaid, with a flowing blue tail.

Neumeier ingeniously uses neon lights and elements from Japanese theater to suggest swimming in the underwater scenes.

Later, he evokes a violent storm as the score crescendos and the mermaid – who yearns for the Prince (Robison), betrothed to the Princess (De Sola) — encounters the white-faced, red-and-black clad Sea Witch (Wei Wang).

Contrasting, brighter scenes (aboard the Prince’s ship, and at his wedding) showcase the corps, decked out in haute couture finery.

Still, it’s Tan as the anguished mermaid who steals the show. Her journey from lovely sea maiden with a tail, to a human awkwardly trying out her new legs, to a trapped, spurned lover – at one point, she literally fights to get out of a box – to a new, undefined, possibly hopeful, connection with the poet who imagines her, is captivating from start to finish.

The ballet’s run continues with WanTing Zhao (in her debut in the role) and Mathilde Froustey joining Tan as the mermaid; it will be interesting to see how they bring her drama to life.

REVIEW

San Francisco Ballet Program 7

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 2 and 8 p.m. April 20 and April 27, 7:30 p.m. April 23-25; 2 p.m. April 28

Tickets: $40 to $399

Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sf ballet.org

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