Established at the heart of Germany in 1973 and having toured and performed in Asia, Europe and the United States, this is not the Hamburg Ballet company’s first time performing on the Sergerstrom stage. In 2004, they performed their world-famous “Nijinsky” ballet and returned in 2007 to perform “Lady of Camellias,” and in 2013, the internationally acclaimed Hamburg Ballet company graced the Orange County with the beloved fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid.”
From Feb. 8-10, the company marked the Southern California premiere of “The Little Mermaid” with four performances (each show with a slightly different cast, because with 54 members the company has the leniency to double cast).
The ballet captures the story of a doomed relationship between a human prince and a young mermaid, capturing raw elements of life, love, death and rejection. In other words, there is no happily ever after.
The ballet was created in honor of Hans Christian Andersen’s 200th birthday in 2005 and it adopts the original tragic ending he scripted. Andersen is commemorated as a principal character throughout the ballet. Andersen, or “the Poet,” opens the show with a prologue taking place on a ship and it is his tear that falls into the ocean that dives the audience under the sea.
The Little Mermaid character is introduced in a marveling fashion, as her creator, the Poet, intricately combines contemporary and ballet styles of dance to mold her. As familiar events begin to occur, I found it refreshing to watch the relationship between the lovable Little Mermaid and the Poet as creation and creator respectively develop. Throughout the play, the Poet is shown trying to protect the Little Mermaid from harm, comfort her in pain and share her deep disappointment.
The character of the Little Mermaid is embodied as energetic, carefree innocence. From the start of her dancing, a vibrant energy and wide-eyed curiosity explodes through the prima ballerina. With rippling long fabric extending far past her legs, the beautifully crafted “fins” mesmerized me. The ballerina’s mastered choreography of battements, floor work and fluid arm movements, coupled with complicated lifts aided by men dressed in all black, created the illusion that the Little Mermaid seemed to be truly swimming through all levels of space on the stage.
Transitions from land to sea and vice versa were created by lighting cues and assisted by suspended, wave-shaped lights that extended from left to right across the stage. In stark contrast to the soothing, serene depth of the ocean, the land above was bathed in bright lights and accompanied by invigorating music. The choreography of movement changed from barefoot, controlled, deliberate steps to sporadic leaps, strong arm movements and intricate, quick footing done mostly on pointe.
Although the spotlighted ballerinas performed amazing feats of flexibility, control and balance, it was the male dancers that highlighted the show for me. From the high leaping, zealous young sailors and Prince to the grounded, slithery ocean shadows and Sea Witch, the men danced with a sheer passion that seemed to excite not only the stage, but reached out to the audience in a contagious manner. Though at times not perfectly clean in all their musicality and group choreography, the male dancers were fully committed to the performance, wearing lively smiles or malicious facial expressions while executing the exhausting athletic movements and master level ballet techniques.
The most riveting scene was, of course, the young mermaid’s transportation to a young maiden. The director created a painful scene, as I watched the ocean shadows literally rip the mermaid out of her fins and the mermaid’s mouth opened in pain. At the operation’s end, she is standing, clothed only in a nude colored leotard and her lush, lively fins are wrapped around the Sea Witch, who caresses them. The Little Mermaid shakes violently, and her small frame and stature reflects a raw, exposed girl in great pain. On the shore, she is enthralled by her new toes and feet but finds it utterly painful to walk. After the Prince finds her, she is confined to a wheelchair for some duration of her stay on land.
Through her pain, the ever-hopeful mermaid strives for the Prince’s adoration and love, but receives only the Prince’s attentions, similar to that of a loyal pet. Other humans on land commit further injustices to the out-of-place mermaid. The young mermaid’s innocent, naive attitude is taken advantage of and she becomes the target for pranks, mockery and gossip.
At the play’s conclusion, the heroically loyal Little Mermaid chooses the life of her Prince over the return of her fins and home in the ocean. The epilogue is a star-lit, soulful duet between her and the Poet on an ascending platform. The synopsis in the playbill poetically describes the scene, “It is the Poet’s love for his Mermaid that gives her a soul that will make her immortal, just as she ‘The Little Mermaid’ immortalizes him.”
As the cast flooded the stage for ending bows, I found myself standing and applauding, recognizing the Hamburg’s Ballet hard work in creating quite a masterpiece. “The Little Mermaid” did not disappoint, with all stereotypical connotations of boredom that are induced at the phrase “seeing a ballet” making no appearance.
Tickets for Rodin begin at $29 and go on sale March 17th available online at SCFTA.org or call (714) 556-2787.