The Little Mermaid – Review – Sheffield Lyceum
The Little Mermaid – Review
Sheffield Lyceum, November 2017
by Eve Luddington
Northern Ballet and its Artistic Director, David Nixon, have an international reputation and a vast following of fans, some of whom are not usually attracted to ballet – I am one of those. The company has set itself a couple of tough challenges this season with two stories which seem unlikely subjects for ballet: first, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas with its concentration camp setting and now The Little Mermaid, partly set under the sea. David Nixon is credited with the direction, choreography, costume design and scenario.
I have little knowledge of ballet but several productions by Northern Ballet in the past have excited and inspired me, most notably A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by Nixon. I had high hopes of The Little Mermaid and invited a friend who has vast experience of contemporary dance but has disliked the few ballets she’s seen. I was hoping to convert her.
The basic story, created by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837, is of a mermaid who falls in love with the Prince she rescues from a storm at sea. She begs the Lord of the Sea to let her become human and live on land so that she might be with her loved one. For this plea to be granted, the price is high: the Little Mermaid will lose her voice and every step she takes will be agony.
In this version, more faithful to Andersen’s fairy tale than Disney’s 1989 sugar-coated film, the mermaid’s desires are unfulfilled. Her Prince marries another woman and the mermaid, wishing to return to her sea life, will only be permitted to do so if she kills the Prince. Otherwise, she will die.
On the proscenium arch stage of the Lyceum Theatre, the production seemed somewhat restricted, but the stage setting, costumes and lighting are all superb. A vast abstract set, designed by Kimie Nakano, conveys a surreal sense of seashells, seaweed and all things under water. It’s made into a shimmering, spectacular sea-world by dappled, rippling light, and is so cleverly designed that it transforms easily and effectively from seascape to the prow of a ship and the shore.
The costume design by Nixon and his assistant, Julie Andersen, is impressive. Most of the under-water characters wear translucent flowing garments in pastel blues and greens which enhance the ethereal quality of the dancers’ movements. The Lord of the Sea, in navy and emerald, and the ubiquitous Seahorse in red who is guardian and friend to the Little Mermaid, offer effective contrast in dress and dance style.
Northern Ballet’s dancers push their bodies to extreme limits gracefully and, seemingly, without effort. With rippling fluidity they convey the sea-world, where movement is slowed and lightened by water. In creating a sense of this world, David Nixon’s choreography is inspired and inventive.
The scene-shifting, done by the dancers themselves, might appear cumbersome were it not for the music, but Sally Beamish, the composer, creates a mood which works for the movement. Her score underpins the entire work very effectively, providing atmosphere, interest and varied pace.
For example, when the scene moves from sea-world to ship, the music changes the dynamic completely. There are echoes of the Sailors’ Hornpipe as the Prince’s mates dance on-board with showiness but discipline. As a tempestuous storm erupts, their dance disintegrates. They flail about at the mercy of chaotic waves, created by the upper bodies of the swooping, stretching sea dancers. As the focus switches to the Little Mermaid’s rescue of the Prince, calm and lyricism are gradually restored. In one beautiful moment, the Mermaid swims on the Prince’s back – her tail flowing behind her.
On shore, the dance is more conventional and more firmly set in the genre of classical ballet. Again, the atmosphere and tone are set by Beamish’s score and enhanced by the stage picture. Wearing costumes with strong lines in bold, earth colours, the performers take on traditional male and female roles, accented nicely with an international flavour. I was reminded of Ancient Egypt and Scotland by the men’s skirts which swirled to great effect as they turned. The women’s costumes were more restricting, their movement graceful but minimally adventurous.
There’s a welcome touch of humour in a short scene where the Prince meets his earthly lover, Dana. She’s in a group of convent girls, led by two prim and rigid nuns. When she breaks free from the disapproving nuns – who are quarrelling between themselves – her duet with the Prince is of astonishing quality. Hannah Bateman (Dana) and Giuliano Contadini (the Prince) have lightness and control, and complement each other beautifully. This is a highlight of the evening.
Dreda Barlow’s dance style, as the Little Mermaid, embodies the fluidity and unworldly innocence of an under-water creature. On land, Barlow has a huge challenge in conveying the agony of one more accustomed to a tail than legs, with feet which make every step on land agonisingly difficult. In one of her dances, she immerses herself in memories of sea-life and forgets her pain. Barlow is technically superb and her portrayal has a delicate physicality but her character’s emotions didn’t communicate to me.
The second half contains long sections in which the choreography seems repetitive and does little to progress the story, to build atmosphere or to develop character. The court scenes, with more than a hint of folk dance, are brilliantly executed but they actually blur the narrative line, I think. In the climax, where the Mermaid is offered a knife and has to decide whether or not to kill the Prince, I felt that the choreography lacked drama.
The final scene was quiet and rather beautiful but obscure, a pity at the end of a narrative ballet. Seated in front of us was a woman with two young children. They chatted excitedly during the interval about the ballet and were held by it throughout. But at the curtain, the woman turned to my friend and me and asked: ‘What on earth was that last bit about?’ I’d read the programme’s synopsis so was able to enlighten her.
For spectacle and dance skills, this ballet is impressive. As a visceral, emotive experience it didn’t press any of my buttons. Did it persuade my contemporary dance friend to book for another traditional ballet? I’m afraid not.
images: Emma Kauldhar