Dancing away Andersen's 'Mermaid' 

When San Francisco Opera Artistic Adviser Francesca Zambello staged “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” on Broadway in 2008, the New York Times' called it “an unfocused spectacle, more parade than narrative ... achieves the dubious miracle of translating an animated cartoon into something that feels like less than two dimensions.”

At San Francisco Ballet's U.S. premiere of John Neumeier's “The Little Mermaid” in the War Memorial Saturday night, I had a similar sense of something not being right.

In both cases, the problem was not doing justice to the original.

The genius of Hans Christian Andersen is in his simplicity, brevity and restrained sentimentality. His stories are instantly memorable and they speak to the heart – not quite so with the ballet.

It had a big cast, outstanding dancing, impressive sets and costumes, but not Andersen's straightforward storytelling.

Of the Danish author's 168 tales, some, such as “The Princess and the Pea,” run a super-economical 370 words. They’re stories that can be told in a couple of minutes, not requiring two acts and an intermission totaling 2 1/2 hours.

Andersen's 1837 “Mermaid” is unusually long, and it has more twists and turns and description of places than most of his tales, but its basic story is simple.

A mermaid falls in love with a prince and saves his life, but is not recognized by him when she appears as a human, having sacrificed her tail, mermaid-longevity and voice in exchange for feet.

If she cannot marry him, the mermaid may return to her former life only if she kills the prince. She refuses, sacrificing herself once again – only to be lifted into heavenward, among “daughters of the air.”

Consider that poignant but simple story danced and danced around – with the addition of a wheelchair, a strange isolation chamber for the Mermaid, and other at times confusing subplots and episodes.

What a great 25-minute straightforward piece this could have been!

If the overall impact was lost, at least on this viewer, the details were quite wonderful.

On Saturday’s opening night, Yuan Yuan Tan danced (even “without legs” for the first half hour) better than ever, fully engaged in the title role, in a noteworthy dramatic performance as well.

Tiit Helimets danced the Prince with teenage bravado; he was properly clueless when around the adoring Mermaid, a callous Pinkerton to her Butterfly.

Sarah van Patten was a convincing, beautiful Princess to turn the Prince's head. Davit Karapetyan gave a bravura performance as the scary, important Sea Witch.

A key – and questionable – addition to the story is the Poet, meaning Andersen, but with more than a writer's involvement in the Mermaid's fate. Danced elegantly by Lloyd Riggins (from Neumeier's Hamburg Ballett), the Poet rises in the final scene, ascending to the stars with the Mermaid.

Original music by Lera Auerbach is pleasantly contemporary, quoting generously from Albinoni, Russian folk songs, even – somewhat jarringly – fate's knocking from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

Martin West conducted the ballet orchestra in fine form, and concertmaster Roy Malan excelled in the solos.

San Francisco Ballet Program 5

War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. March 24; 8 p.m. March 23, 25-27; 2 p.m. March 27-28
Tickets: $20 to $275
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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