Through a wash of watercolor sea, as if glimpsed through a periscope, a lighted box appears, within which a poet writes lines in cursive script: “Far far out to sea, where the water is blue as a cornflower and clear as a crystal . . .” It isn’t once upon a time in Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 “The Little Mermaid,” the tale of a mermaid who sacrifices her fins for feet in pursuit of a prince’s love. Andersen’s story juxtaposes the filigree and fanfare we associate with fairy tales with a transformation that is more like a mutilation—the price of the Mermaid’s human form requires that her tongue be cut out of her mouth, and her every human step feels “like treading on sharp knives.”
The Little Mermaid
Through 4/30: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM; Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Upper Wacker, 312-386-8905, joffrey.org, $36-$200
John Neumeier’s interpretation of Andersen’s story, created in 2005 and danced by the Joffrey Ballet at the Lyric Opera House through April 30, reflects the darkness of the original story, which ends not with the Mermaid marrying the man, but with a purgatorial redemption: she neither returns to the water, where mermaids perish into sea foam, nor does she manage a mortal existence, old maid or not. Rather, she becomes a spirit of the air, who might, after 300 years of good deeds, obtain an immortal soul, aided by children who are good and punished by those who are bad.
The unexpected moral of Andersen’s story, which prizes Christian virtue over pagan love, seems to anchor Neumeier’s rendition, which frames the tragic story of the Little Mermaid as a literary metaphor imagined by a poet (Stefan Goncalvez) thwarted in his desire for his heterosexual friend Edvard, who has married a woman, Henriette. In the poet’s vision, Edvard becomes a swaggering, golf-playing prince (Dylan Gutierrez) towering over a troupe of gay sailors. Below, in the dark waters of the sea, surrounded by languid beings, the Little Mermaid (Victoria Jaiani) is first seen reclining on the floor, legs shrouded in lengths of aquamarine fabric that pool all around her. To swim, she is lifted by three men, who fan out her tail as she glides through the space, arms wavering in watery motions—when she moves on her own, it’s by dragging her weedy silks along as they twist beneath her feet.
The Prince, arriving at sea bottom by way of a wayward golf ball, is blind to her presence, and, because love is cruel, she falls for him, hovering as solicitously as seaweed embracing a stone. As a storm whips the ocean, she returns him to shore, a small raked platform in the shape of a rhombus, where soon he’s found by a schoolgirl/Princess (Anais Bueno), who breaks the Madeline-straight lines led by a pair of antic nuns (Lucia Connolly and Julia Rust) to investigate.
Beneath the waves, the Mermaid entreats the Sea Witch (Yoshihisa Arai) for a set of legs, and he grants them in a violent whirlpooling assault that strips her of her fins, leaving her hunched, naked, and knock-kneed, wobbling on crooked limbs, radiating excruciation from every toe. The Prince discovers her in this abject state, and, even though he has not hitherto given any indication that he is anything other than a golf-playing frat boy, he nobly rescues her and installs her in a wheelchair.
In act two, the Prince marries the Princess, who nearly always wears pink. (The Princess is never mean, only irritatingly privileged and able-bodied.) At their wedding, the Mermaid is costumed like the rest of the bridesmaids and unable to keep up. Her sadness and incapacity are movingly symbolized by a tilted white box too small to contain her, which disorients and isolates her in a solitary cell. The intrusion of sea life brings with it a knife from the Sea Witch, with which she can kill the Prince and regain her fins. But this knife, so fatal and horrific and real to the Mermaid, is simply comic relief to the Prince, who feigns stabbing himself and swallowing the evidence before strutting off to his wedding night—the moment is dissonant and absurd, as tragedies are to those who can’t experience them. Not meant for this world, the Mermaid and the Poet rise together into a clear sky of glittering stars.
Conveyed through choreography as well as visually stunning sets and costumes designed by Neumeier, the places and people of the land have a garish geometry—flat, Euclidean, and blaringly colorful. The women wear dresses, and the men wear sailor suits, whereas the water is nebulously black and blue and its folk androgynous as fish—visually punning on straightness and queerness. However, in this world, the beauty of the ocean is never quite expressed in the way such magic realms achieve their transformative power in ballets such as Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, or Midsummer Night’s Dream—where these alternate beings are more beautiful and more potent than the humans that invade their domains. Rather, a fishtail is an encumbrance that seems to require human help, the world dim and frighteningly governed by malevolent enchantment that takes more than it gives.
In this way, Neumeier’s Little Mermaid becomes an allegory for queerness as an impossible and forbidden love, unrewarded, unaccepted, and sadistically painful—a vision set to a dissonant score by Lera Auerbach. Like his Glass Menagerie, recently performed by the Hamburg Ballet at the Harris, the imagery of disability is used to represent an outcast state of being, and queerness is a proscription that cannot be overcome—here, as constraints of a narrative that occurs within rigid notions of goodness, possibility, and beauty. The work is provocative as a mirror of dominant social norms, yet leaves one yearning for an unavailable transcendence.