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Monday, May 2, 2011

Five Reasons the San Francisco Ballet Does
The Little Mermaid Better Than Disney

Posted By on Mon, May 2, 2011 at 1:30 PM

Yuan Yuan Tan (top) and Tiit Helimets in The Little Mermaid. - ERIK TOMASSON
  • Erik Tomasson
  • Yuan Yuan Tan (top) and Tiit Helimets in The Little Mermaid.
The title The Little Mermaid will forever be associated in the minds of a certain generation as the animated tale of a redheaded creature named Ariel who sings with lobsters and wants to be "Part of Your World." That's what the Disney bulldozer does when it rolls over fairy tales and churns them up as children's fare. Other than a few hissy fits from the sea witch, Ursula, the movie jettisoned the haunting, dark undertones of the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

The San Francisco Ballet has not. Last season, the ballet staged the U.S. premiere of the ballet of John Neumeier, an American choreographer who has made his career almost entirely in Europe. It has brought the show back for just one week through Sunday to close out its 2011 season. Prepare to be wowed. Here's why it's nothing like the Disney movie.

1. It puts homosexuality front and center.

Wait, wasn't The Little Mermaid a paean to heterosexual unions? Ariel fell for the prince, and she had to turn into a human to consummate that love? Turns out not. Hans Christian Andersen suffered from many unrequited loves in his life -- some of them men. This is the starting point for this ballet's tale. We see the Poet, an artist in a top hat and early 20th century garb, mournfully watching what the program refers to as his "dear friend" Edvard, marry a lovely dame. The two men exchange a longing handshake after the festivities, then Edvard gives him a rather suggestive squeeze on the nose and bump on the chin. The Poet sheds a tear, which falls in to the sea below and forms the Little Mermaid. Seems Disney didn't want to touch that angle.

2. The mermaid is an unsettling sea-species -- not a buxom, human redhead who just happens to have a fish tail.

In most depictions, mermaids are busty sex-bots who have that confounding fish tail down below instead of human parts. Not this mermaid. The mermaid we see poking her head through the dry ice on the ocean's floor, surrounded by other writhing sea creatures, is an asexual, otherworldly being. She was embodied Sunday by principal dancer Sarah Van Patten, and she is danced on alternate days by Yuan Yuan Tan.

You've simply never seen a human move like this, no matter how many contemporary dance shows you've attended. To get a taste, check out the video preview on the ballet's website. She slithers and darts her arms like seaweed, her fingers kept together to form a fin, not separated into a graceful arc. Forget the ballerina posture. The mermaid hunches her shoulders, she rolls on the ground, she flicks her legs encased in two big billowing silk-pant legs. In one moment, three men in black carry her about the stage as she dives and corkscrews through the water. She opens her eyes wide at the audience and darts her eyes back and forth. When she first comes up to land, she can't figure out where her legs are supposed to go, and one ends up twisted behind her neck. Her new feet tremble as she places them on the floor to walk. In short, the mermaid is kind of a freak. And we love her that way.

3. The Sea Witch is a fearsome, demonic man-force, not an obese bitch named Ursula.

Let's talk about this Sea Witch. This guy is not someone you'd want to encounter in a dark alley, though you'd be pretty fascinated if you did. Principal dancer Jaime Garcia Castilla shaved his head and bathed his skin in a ghastly white, adding frightening black and red paint scrawled across his face, and the impression of snakes coiling on this chest. Garcia Castilla is a dynamically gifted dancer; the clean lines of his white arms sliced through the dark ocean set, providing a malevolent, virile counterpoint to the mermaid's idiosyncratic vulnerability. Bravo. The Sea Witch gave me nightmares.

The Mermaid (Yuan Yuan Tan, right) never takes to being on land. - ERIK TOMASSON
  • Erik Tomasson
  • The Mermaid (Yuan Yuan Tan, right) never takes to being on land.
4. Disney sang about being "Under the Sea." This set design puts you under the sea.

The show did not shirk from costs when assembling the modern set. The Poet literally dives over a ship's rail to somersault down a slide into the dark sea below. The neon-lit waves at the stage's bottom rise up, plunging us into the sea with the Poet. Once the Mermaid arrives on land, the sun is bright -- too bright -- to mimic the harsh realities that greet her. We're on board a cruise liner, where loopy, house-of-mirrors music highlights the Mermaid's disorientation as she views the early 20th century society folks waltz around her.

The opening of the second act is a masterpiece. The Mermaid, still with her white facepaint, but now in a simple gray frock, sits uncomfortably on a chair in a claustrophobic whitewashed room with slanting walls and floors. The mermaid gets up and starts to feel around the room like an amphibian, the vertiginous room mirroring her own disorientation.

5. This ballet aims its unsettling, fish-out-of-water subject toward adults.

The Little Mermaid's transition to human life is rather hellish. The Prince -- a pompous fellow -- dives into the sea looking for a golf ball he's launched into the water, and the Mermaid falls in love with him and rescues him. The Mermaid asks the Sea Witch to make her human, and this is no light transformation. The Sea Witch strips off her beautiful top and silk fins, leaving her naked except for a flesh-colored leotard, her new limbs splayed like a frog, terrified.

Her orientation to the human world is cruel. Uncertain of her legs, she's reduced to hunching in a wheelchair like a person in a convalescent home as she watches the humans swirl around her. She attends the wedding of the Prince to the Princess as a strange sea creature in a ridiculous pink bride's maid dress. She lusts after the Prince, who is every part the prom king dancing with his queen, while the Mermaid stands aside like the most awkward Molly Ringwald. The Prince gives her his hat to hang onto to placate her. What an ass.

By the end, the Mermaid is ostracized and alone. She falls flat onto the floor off her pointe shoes, seemingly headfirst without using her arms to break her fall as a human would. She desperately grabs at her confining dress, ripping off her restricting pointe shoes. She whacks at her own legs as they form into her old fish tail pose. It's clear why the ballet warns parents that the ballet is not for young children.

The Little Mermaid starts at 8 p.m. Tuesday (and continues through Sunday, May 8) at the War Memorial Opera House. Admission starts at $30 for standing room only. (If the mermaid can dance like that using her legs for the first time, we're sure you can stand on yours, too.)

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Lauren Smiley

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