Fairy tales are often seen as literature for children. But that is not really an accurate assumption. Just take a look at choreographer John Neumeier’s strange but compelling ballet inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s enduring classic “The Little Mermaid,” written in 1837.
Created by Neumeier for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2005, and subsequently performed by the Hamburg Ballet (where the prolific 84-year-old Milwaukee-born, Chicago-trained artist has served as director and chief choreographer since 1973, and has recently announced his planned retirement), “Mermaid” is now receiving its Chicago premiere in a grand-scale production by the Joffrey Ballet on the Lyric Opera House stage. And it serves as proof of both Neumeier’s notably dramatic style and the Joffrey company’s exceptional ability to realize it.
The tale of a mermaid who is willing to sacrifice her seaworthy tail for the legs that will make her human and allow her to gain the love of a handsome prince, the ballet is at once a strange, heart-breaking and exceedingly dark work.
Neumeier (who also designed the production’s fascinating ultra-modern sets, costumes and lighting), is beautifully supported by composer Lera Auerbach’s intriguing score that is being impeccably performed by the Lyric Opera Orchestra led by Scott Speck. The ballet has not only challenged the superb technique of the Joffrey dancers but it has put their impressive dramatic talents on display as well. (Over the years, Neumeier has adapted many literary and dramatic classics for dance, with the Hamburg Ballet’s production of “The Glass Menagerie,” which came to Chicago this past February, another ideal example.)
The tale being told here is a very adult one, which is somewhat too long in its first act and not always easy to follow. So before the lights come up on the performance be sure to read the synopsis of the work printed in your program. Of course, the ballet sticks to the essentials of Anderson’s story, with the gift of immortality taking the place of the Mermaid’s failed quest for love. And that quest for love is just as powerful for the Poet who has imagined her and has been on his own search for such a connection.
The dancing throughout is impeccable and Neumeier’s work is fiercely difficult, with the dancer playing the Mermaid capturing both the challenging movement and emotional fever of the marine creature and her human incarnation at almost every moment of the ballet. The ever-astonishing dancer Victoria Jaiani, who performed the role at Wednesday’s opening night performance, was absolutely phenomenal. Watching her move as she is wrapped in a long, fluid, pale blue costume that encases her entire lower body and feet, and yet somehow manages to sweep across the stage as if she is still in the ocean, is to see a remarkable feat. And when she does have feet (and is in pointe shoes), that difficult transition is ideally suggested with the sea creature not quite fully at home on land.
Jaiani (who recently reprised her starring role in Yuri Possokhov’s ballet, “Anna Karenina”) is a unique talent and here she brings her character to life in many different and remarkable ways.
Alternately supporting and betraying her throughout the story is the handsome Prince and ship Captain (danced by Dylan Gutierrez, a commanding figure and partner), who the Mermaid saved from drowning, and who seems, initially, to love her. Yet he chooses to marry a more traditional woman for his princess bride (the sassy Anais Bueno), leaving the Mermaid in great despair.
The evil Sea Witch, the character who removed the Mermaid’s tail early on so that she could follow the Prince (who was played with ideal demonic style by the ever notable Yoshihisa Arai, who sadly is retiring at the end of this season), also gives her the knife with which she would be able to kill the Prince who has abandoned her. But she cannot bring herself to do that.
Most tellingly of all, there is the Poet, who is clearly attracted to the Prince, too (and is ideally played by Stefan Goncalvez, whose black coat and top hat suggest he might be a version of Andersen himself). Like the Mermaid’s story that he has imagined, he is filled with the same profound heartbreak she has experienced, and is, in the end, seen sheltering with her. And with that, Anderson’s fairy tale becomes something of a self-portrait of the writer.
“The Little Mermaid” runs through April 30 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr. For tickets visit joffrey.org or call (312) 386-8905.
Assuming the major roles in a number of performances throughout the run will be another cast featuring Gayeon Jung as the Mermaid, Xavier Nunez as the Poet, Hyuma Kiyosawa as the Prince, Amanda Assucena as the woman who becomes his Princess, and Edson Barbosa as the evil Sea Witch.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic