Review: Hamburg Ballet's 'Mermaid' swims murky passages

Hamburg Ballet’s visionary artistic director, John Neumeier, is the rare dance-maker who also dreams up his own magnificent lighting, set and costume designs, which accounts for the scenic sumptuousness of his two-act ballet “The Little Mermaid,” performed this weekend at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

In this instance, alas, “Little Mermaid’s” visual complexity was not enough to overcome the ballet’s multitude passages of unison, danced monotony.

For though Neumeier quite cleverly marshaled artistic traditions from around the world for this 2007, two-act retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s indelible fable, the choreography's pallid neo-classicism and illustrative mimicry undermined his larger ambitions. Compounding matters, Russian composer Lera Auerbach’s overblown score (heard in recording) spun a web of atmospheric bombast that drowned everything in its path.   

Despite these downsides, Hamburg is a most welcome return visitor (the troupe received a standing ovation on opening night). Its dancers perform with remarkable bearing and artistry, and demonstrated again a highly committed theatricality.

On Friday evening, Silvia Azzoni gave a tour de force account of the innocent sea creature who initially sacrifices her body, then her life, for love. She carried the ballet on her pliable and transformative body.

“Mermaid” was commissioned by the Royal Danish Ballet to celebrate Andersen’s’ 200th birthday, and Neumeier, a Milwaukee native who has led Hamburg Ballet for 40 years, hews to the original tragic tale. But he also broadened the work so as to telescope its universal themes of unattainable love.

Neumeier inserted Andersen (called the Poet) into the story as a character who parallels the Mermaid and gives other figures double meaning too, including the Prince. He was a stand-in for Edvard Collin, one of Andersen’s (many) real-life unrequited paramours.

In the cathartic ending, the Poet, poignantly portrayed by American Lloyd Riggins, and the Mermaid were lifted together to a better world in a field of pointillist lights.

Sharp contrasts distinguished the undersea and human worlds, a blunt counterpoint of noble-savage-versus-buffoon. The aquatic creatures gestured using eel-like squiggles and were carried in horizontal, swimming postures through a smoky, blue-hued realm.

Azzoni was wrapped in a ribboned bodice of Balinese inspiration and wore extra-long hakama trousers from Noh theater, fabric trailing past and hiding her feet. Her porters were three black-clad assistants (the perfectly synchronized Silvano Ballone, Edvin Revazov, Thomas Stuhrmann) who spread her cloth “tail” while she swam.

The Mermaid’s visit to the Sea Witch (a menacing and electrifying Alexandre Riabko) was a harrowing high point; Azzoni was stripped nearly naked, revealing legs that were painful and broken instruments.

The earthly scenes were colored in radiant tones, and the ballet’s fallible humans scrambled about in vertical, staccato bursts. Carsten Jung, as the Prince/Edvard, and Hélène Bouchet, as the Princess/Helene, were admirable in parts merely sketched as airhead stereotypes. If only they, and the remainder of the cast, had been given the ability to swim in deeper waters.   


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