Think Hans Christian Anderson, but infused with contemporary music, an eerie mood and voiceless, in-motion actors. John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid is a curious combination of these components. Neumeier’s rendition of the classic tale, at the Kennedy Center through Sunday, will leave you heartbroken, fascinated and wanting more.
His ballet opens with a bright, cheery scene on a ship, quickly shifting gears to the mystical world beneath the water. Here we meet the Little Mermaid herself, and watch as her romance unfolds with her beloved Prince. The ballet constantly, yet seamlessly, alternates between these earthly and more ephemeral scenes, guiding audiences through the ballet’s two coexisting worlds.
As a musician, perhaps I’m slightly biased, but the ballet’s music is what struck me the most. It’s eerie and ungrounded – almost supernatural. It’s Stravinksy-like in its atonal and rhythmically unpredictable passages. The music’s intensity mirrors the ballet’s most gripping moments, ensuring that audiences not only see the story, but hear and feel it, too.
For me, the most enthralling and heartbreaking scene was at the end of Part I. The Little Mermaid has transformed into a human to pursue the Prince, only to discover his affection for another woman. She watches in vain as the Prince falls in love with another, helpless to the power of her infatuation.
As she watches them kiss, she realizes the man she loves truly belongs to someone else. She is alone in the foreign world she now lives, left to tend to her pain by herself.
“The Little Mermaid offers unconditional love, but it’s unrequited,” Neumeier says. “The story tells us that no matter how much we love, this does not guarantee it will be returned.”
The ballet concludes with the marriage of the Prince and his love, with the Little Mermaid serving as a bridesmaid. She emotes utter angst and devastation in one final, wildly emotional solo dance. Ironically, she is wearing a pink dress – the same color the Prince’s love wore on one of their first meetings.
Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid is painfully tragic, performed in a way that communicates the Little Mermaid’s emotion with authenticity and passion. The play is about unrequited love, but it’s also about emotional connection. Through movement and music, we as audience members are able to feel the Little Mermaid’s heartbreak – perhaps even connecting it back to our own lives.
“Watching a ballet performance is much more than just following the story related in the synopsis,” Neumeier says. “I believe that dance is the living shape of emotion.”
The Little Mermaid captures this emotion with poise and authenticity. It’s a ballet that is as impactful as it is tragic, promising us all an experience we won’t soon forget.
Neumeier says he sincerely believe that watching a live performance is an enriching experience for each member of the audience.
“It tells them something about who they are. I hope everyone who attends the performance takes that away with them.”
The Little Mermaid runs at the Kennedy Center through Sunday, April 2. Buy tickets here.
Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org