I went to see The Little Mermaid at the SF Ballet this Friday, and I quite enjoyed it. It was much more experimental than I was expecting, but this was a pleasant surprise. For starters, they had a theremin player, which provided eerie strange sounds to capture the eponymous mermaid’s otherworldly ethereal presence. While she was “under water,” her movements were graceful and beautiful and eerie and weird. But with legs on land, she would lurch about in an unsettling uncanny manner. To emphasize this effect, while her whole body was painted a bright white with blue lines (to resemble a fish), when she gained legs her legs were not painted – they were just left skin tone. Giving the impression that this creature just had random human legs stuck on, without bothering to match skin tone or hide the “seams.”
But beyond that, most experimental of all, is that H.C. Andersen himself was a character in the ballet (as “The Poet”). This made the mermaid not so much a character as a literal physical manifestation of Andersen’s desires for the young (straight) nobleman (as “The Prince”). There are several scenes of the poet struggling to keep the mermaid hidden from the prince, even as she grasps at him whenever he passes by her. Sometimes the poet will even cover her with his coat to keep the prince from seeing. Eventually, though, the poet literally just hands the mermaid to the prince, who seems to go “Hmm I don’t want this” and hands her right back to return to courting his romantic interest – a young woman.
These additions make much clearer and more literal the mermaid’s inability to speak her desires to the prince, and the ways in which the prince enjoys her company as a friend but is unable to reciprocate her feelings. All of these elements were, of course, present in the original Andersen story, ultimately about his acceptance that you cannot force somebody to love you and nobody owes you their affection, but this ballet does change the context towards the more literal. Which was super interesting to see!