Review: Hamburg Ballet: John Neumeier’s ‘The Little Mermaid’

In this production, John Neumeier adapts the classic 1837 tale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid. The production, not only explores the story of a young woman who wishes to have a human experience and follow her heart as she falls in love with a man, but it also incorporates a young poet as he creates this tragic story, projecting his own feelings of love loss and rejection into this creation. During the first act we are first introduced to the poet, as he lives the disappointment of rejection and sees off the one he loves marry someone else. His disillusionment then is poured into a story of a young woman destined to suffer the loss and pain of rejection.

Dancers Ivan Urban and Silvia Azzoni as Hans Christian Anderson and The Little Mermaid. Photo by Kiran West.

There are many parallels between his life and that of the story he creates, The Little Mermaid. Last night, the young poet was brought to life by Lloyd Riggins in a delightful performance that brings out the unique choreography by Neumeier, which uses ballet to transmit loss and heartache, not an easy task. When the mermaid is introduced on stage, there are undulating and fluid movements that almost seem happy. This is of course, the time before the mermaid meets and falls in love with a man. Silvia Azzoni and Carsten Jung as the Prince convincingly come together in an underwater dance that symbols the beginning of this unrequited love story.

The story goes, as we know it, once the mermaid is in love she strikes a pact that will give her human form, but can also claim her life if she is not successful at closing the deal with her true love. The transformation is far from beautiful; it is a visceral moment, as the mermaid goes from scales and tail to skin and legs. As far as ballet goes, Neumeier takes away the grace and beauty inherently associated with the technique and gives us a series of movements that look painful as the mermaid thrashes about on stage as her tail feels like a hindrance in her search for true love.

The choreography is indeed a testament to the rich and complex inner life of this young woman. With sudden and difficult movements, there is an agony imbued in the mermaid’s journey; going from fluid movements under water to the difficulty of standing on legs while on solid terrain and then feeling the hopelessness of love in a series of claustrophobic scenes. Neumeier’s sensibility veers to the darkness of the original story. During last night’s performance at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House, principal ballerina Silvia Azzoni stood out as The Little Mermaid depicting an acute internal strife through movement.

Lloyd Riggins, Silvia Azzoni, Carsten Jung, and Helene Bouchet. Photo by Holger Badekow.

The tale itself is beautifully illustrated by vivid imagery introduced in the set design and costumes, bringing a contemporary artistic take by Neumeier. There are severe elements like the white and blue lighting, portraying a world that is bleak accompanied with the musical score by Lera Auerbach, which can at times seem jarring, conducted live by Luciano DiMartino. The music tone itself sets this production many miles apart from the Ariel’s song and dance in Disney’s classic story. However, the ballet proves that this classic tale remains a fertile ground for exploration of loss, love and questions of identity. The universal themes here are devoid of “fairy tale” status and brought back to a more primeval human experience where pain, sorrow and alienation are part of life.

Neumeier’s version of The Little Mermaid gravitates towards the darkest elements of the classic story, which end in tragedy. You will not find the sugar coating that Disney has popularized; yet this production is a not-to-be-missed event where every detail brings a wonderful composition of light, movement, and original score and remarkable dance performances. An experience for all senses by The Hamburg ballet, and one cannot think of a better vehicle for Neumeier’s vision, which makes a classic tale a novel experience.

Recommended for age 10 and up.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, plus a 25-minute intermssion.

The Little Mermaid plays through April 2, 2017, at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or Toll-Free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.


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