Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Hamburg Ballet's "The Little Mermaid"

I've been going to the ballet a lot recently! Last week I went to see a performance of the Hamburg Ballet's "The Little Mermaid" at the Kennedy Center. I probably should have done my research beforehand, because I didn't realize how modern this piece is. It was commissioned by the Royal Danish Ballet to commemorate the 200th birthday of Hans Christian Andersen (the creator of many well-known fairy tales) and premiered in 2005; a revised version was created in 2007 for the Hamburg Ballet (with new music too by Lera Auerbach), and I figure that's the version I saw. Notes in the program say that John Neumeier, the artistic director for the company, "has continually focused on the preservation of ballet tradition, while giving his works a modern dramatic framework." So that was a dead give-away to me that this show would not be full of tutus and beautiful music.

And I was right. Here's a great synopsis video I found on the ballet company's website:

While I'm not a fan of modern ballets, there were parts of this one that I thought were very effective and moving. First of all, this take on the famous story includes a "poet," representing Hans Christian Andersen; he is in love with his friend Edvard (the author was a homosexual in real life), who is getting married. The whole story is based off of the poet's creation of the Little Mermaid; she is his feelings anthropomorphized. Her love for the prince is the poet's love for his friend; her heartbreak is his heartbreak. These parallels and metaphors run throughout the story, and while symbolism usually goes over my head, I thought this theme was loud and clear in this performance. The connection was made even more obvious when the movements of the Little Mermaid and the Poet would mirror each other identically. And maybe this is why I didn't think the music or dancing was beautiful; the whole piece is supposed to represent these sad, not beautiful, feelings that Andersen/the Poet is feeling.

Image found here
I really liked the minimal sets in this performance. Neon lines represented the waves in the ocean; during the storm scene, the lights would flicker, representing not only perhaps lightening but also the white caps of the waves crashing here and there. During the scenes under the sea, there was a model boat near the ceiling,; that way you could see the perspective from inside the ocean.

While I didn't find the Little Mermaid character (as she was played) particularly likeable (see my comments further down), I thought Silvia Azzoni did an amazing job portraying all of the negative feelings of the character. Her anguish is palpable when the Sea Witch removes her tail to give her legs, her vulnerability evident as she lays naked on the beach as a human.

Removing her tail. Image found here
Eventually the Prince finds her naked on the beach, but takes FOREVER to give her his coat! Image found here
Part 2 starts with the Little Mermaid in her chamber on land. She is like a patient in a psych ward, trapped in a padded cell. She touches the walls and ceiling, and realizes just how confined she is on land as opposed to when she can swim the entire ocean. I thought the scene was very moving, and you can see how much she wishes to be "free" again.

Image found here
Throughout the second part of the performance, you can see how much the Little Mermaid loves the Prince. But he treats her like a child, teasing her and being playful around her. He doesn't realize her feelings (or the seriousness of them), and her disappointment in this unrequited love is obvious. In one scene she offers him a conch shell as a gift, to show her love and affection. He thanks her, but immediately gives it to his new wife, who proceeds to give it away to a wedding guest just to get rid of it. Gifts are one of the Five Love Languages, and anyone who's ever shared a gift with someone who didn't appreciate it knows exactly how the Little Mermaid was feeling in that moment. 

Image found here
Despite the fact that he does not return those feelings of love, she still cares about him. When the Sea Witch gives her a knife, telling her that he will give back her tail if she kills the Prince, she can't do it. Even within the framework of a story, the Poet cannot kill the character who represents the man he loves. So romantic!

Image found here
While I couldn't find good pictures of the beach/church scene, I liked that the students (i.e. the Princess and her friends) reminded me of the cartoon Madeline, especially since the two adults with them were nuns (who wore black pointe shoes! I'm not sure I had ever seen that before.). The nuns also made me think of mushrooms, because their hats were so big and wide!

I'm a bit conflicted on how I feel about the epilogue. I found it fitting for her to rip her shoes and dress off, since we all knew the hurt and frustration she was feeling as a human. She is eventually joined by the poet, and they are surrounded by stars (hence the title of this part "In another world"). That part was pretty, with all the twinkling lights, but the ceiling of the set started coming down on them; if this was supposed to symbolize something (maybe the walls crashing down on you?), it wasn't really clear.

So there were parts of this performance that I did enjoy and appreciate. But there were more things that I didn't like...

Just like with most modern dance, I did not enjoy the music. It was very eerie and creepy, with violin-plucking and all. There were brief moments of clarity and joy in the music, but most of the time it really just seemed like noise. I will say that I thought of describing the music as "other-worldly," which the ocean is, so in that way I guess it could have been seen as appropriate. But music "under the sea" can be happy, as Disney shows us. But I suppose this isn't a happy version of the story...

I didn't find the dancing graceful, which to me is the main word that should be used to describe ballet. Not all of it was bad, but some of the movements were very awkward or strange. Even when she was "swimming," it was more like she was floundering or darting around like a fish, rather than gracefully moving like a dolphin. See the dance below (same ballerina, different male dancer):

Also, I think many of us picture mermaids as beautiful women in shell bras with pretty tails. But this version of the Little Mermaid was very alien. I thought Silvia Azzoni looked a lot like Smeagol/Gollum from The Lord of the Rings; note the resemblance below (images found here and here). This made her quite unrelatable (at least to me). The dancers who played her sisters were beautiful and smiley, so I'm not sure why the Little Mermaid could not have been portrayed in the same way (at least for the underwater scenes when she was happy).

In modern dance fashion, this piece contained the typical clich├ęs (is that redundant?): dancers rolling on the ground, dancing spastically, to creepy violin music. I thought some of the costume choices were odd, too. I liked what the background dancers were wearing: their flowing skirts represented water, which I thought was very smart. BUT the Little Mermaid took the trendy, wide-legged pants to a whole new level: her pants that were her tail (see below) were so long that she had to have three "shadow" dancers hold up the pants so that she wouldn't trip over the extra fabric. I think a long skirt could still have given the impression of a tail without the cumbersome outcome.

Image found here
The "shadows" themselves look like ninjas, with their black clothes and face masks. The ones related to the Sea Witch (as opposed to the ones with the Little Mermaid), wore sheer pants with cut-outs near the upper thighs and loincloths underneath (see photo below). I thought it was odd that hindering the movements of the prima ballerina is okay, but God forbid we obstruct a man's dancing... And on a similar note, I was appalled by the performance's "gratuitous male nudity" (words from a woman sitting near me, which I thought were spot-on). Scene 2 takes place on the ship, and the entirety of it is a homoerotic wet dream. Sailors are dancing in different stages of undress, and they touch each other almost inappropriately throughout much of the scene. I think in the prologue, when the Poet sees his friend getting married, we can tell that the Poet is gay and is in love with his friend; we didn't need this over-the-top scene to hammer the point home.

Image found here
I also didn't care for the Sea Witch costume. Although he certainly looked scary, the white paint with black shapes drawn on him was more alien than sea-witch; plus, it's not much of a costume when your outfit consists mostly of paint rather than clothes. He also made weird gestures, like sticking out his tongue with his mouth wide open, or dancing/moving as if he were stabbing himself. The whole effect was odd, and I wasn't buying it.

Once everyone is on the ship (the Little Mermaid has been found on the beach by the Prince), all the passengers are dancing. The color scheme was interesting: yellow, red, white, and black. A lot of the costumes actually just looked like regular clothes, so I wondered how many of the pieces had just been bought as opposed to made. Even though these passengers are all in normal clothes, the Little Mermaid has only been given a little sailor outfit to wear. Honestly? Not one woman upon the ship would have given her some real clothes? That's ridiculous, no matter how snooty they were. 

During the wedding scene, almost all of the performers were junior dancers, which I didn't appreciate. I understand that junior dancers need practice in order to become more experienced, but watching teenagers dance isn't what I paid to see. The fact that at one point they all essentially did a Hitler salute didn't make me warm up to them (AND from a German ballet company no less. That's even more distasteful!).

BUT of course this is just my opinion! During intermission, the people behind me were saying the show was "beautiful" and "graceful," two words that I would NOT have used to describe the majority of the performance; they also claimed how talented the composer was, while I disagree (right in the middle of the show, she used what sounded exactly like the legendary first few notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, so she was practically plagiarizing some parts!). I guess you'll have to see the show to make up your own mind.

Here are some other reviews on the show that I found online after I wrote my own opinion piece:
DC Theatre Scene
DC Metro Theater Arts
Washington Post - Entertainment
Critical Dance (shares some of my opinions)

PS: The night ended on the Kennedy Center shuttle bus, which was playing songs from The Sound of Music. I like that the bus plays music, but I much prefer the classical music pieces, rather than "Do Re Mi" blasting out of the speakers!

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