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Taking a Children’s Tale to Dark New Depths

March 21, 2010

In John Neumeier’s ballet adaptation of “The Little Mermaid,” the title character undergoes an extreme physical ordeal so that she might live on land. As the orchestra plays a stomping series of cataclysmic chords, a malevolent sea witch wrenches off the mermaid’s fluid blue costume and leaves her almost naked and shivering onstage. With one of her newly acquired human limbs grotesquely contorted over her shoulder, the former mermaid looks like an insect that’s been flayed alive.

For audiences weaned on the peppy 1989 Walt Disney animated film version of “The Little Mermaid,” Mr. Neumeier’s relentlessly bleak take on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale — which opened Saturday night at the War Memorial Opera House in its United States premiere by the San Francisco Ballet — may come across as a bit of a shock. Mr. Neumeier, the director of the Hamburg Ballet in Germany, first had that company dance the piece, and cavorting crabs and singing sea urchins were nowhere to be found, as a viewing of the DVD of a November 2009 Hamburg performance shows.

Infused with stark blue and white light, angular movements, expressionistic visual imagery and an unsettling and often dissonant musical score by the Russian composer Lera Auerbach, Mr. Neumeier’s mature take on Andersen’s cautionary tale about a young woman who risks everything for love has about as much in common with the Disney version as Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” has with Lewis Carroll’s original text.

Perhaps to retaliate against the prettification of many classic children’s stories, prominent artists are drawn to recasting such works in more somber hues. Projects like those of Mr. Neumeier and Mr. Burton help to reconnect audiences with the darkness that lies at the heart of the originals.

But sometimes the adapters go too far in focusing on mature themes, and risk estranging not only children but adults too. This can undermine the well-intentioned efforts to bring a fresh perspective to parts of our collective folklore that have been bowdlerized in the pursuit of audience-pleasing palatability.

Since becoming the Hamburg’s director and chief choreographer in 1973, Mr. Neumeier, who was born in Milwaukee and studied literature and theater arts before training as a dancer, has created psychologically intense works that straddle the worlds of drama and dance. His ballets, including “Nijinsky” (2000) and “Death in Venice” (2003), contrast the lead characters’ stormy mental states with an austere visual aesthetic. Demanding wide emotional range and kaleidoscopic movement that veers between flowing liquidity and spiky brittleness, Mr. Neumeier’s approach to “The Little Mermaid” plummets to the pitiless depths of Andersen’s watery fairy tale.

Unlike Disney’s dainty Ariel — and, for that matter, the central character in the miniballet that Roland Petit created for the 1952 film “Hans Christian Andersen” — the heroine in Andersen’s original is in constant pain when she walks on human feet. Mr. Neumeier captures Andersen’s descriptions of physical torture by creating dance steps that make the principal ballerina in the role of the Mermaid (portrayed alternately in San Francisco by Yuan Yuan Tan and Sarah Van Patten) look, as Anderson wrote, as if she were “treading upon sharp knives.” Knock-kneed, slump-shouldered and in a wheelchair for several scenes, the disoriented ex-mermaid is literally a fish out of water.

The second half of the ballet begins with a nightmarish vision of the heroine, stuck in a small white room and wearing a girlish gray dress. In the orchestration, Ms. Auerbach’s use of a flute and a cello playing in very high register gives the scene an otherworldly quality. The mermaid desperately bashes what used to be her tailfin (represented by the ballerina bending one leg at the knee and flicking a point shoe behind her) against the wall. She appears almost suicidal.

The Neumeier ballet isn’t entirely gloomy. He injects wry physical humor on occasion. In one scene three nuns wearing huge wimples cross themselves frantically. And the ending, though not uplifting, carries a sense of release.

Yet darkness threatens even these lighter moments. During the scene with the nuns, descending figures in the woodwinds undercut the humor. And the eerie tranquility of the final tableau suggests death more than new life.

“The darker side of the fairy tale is an essential aspect of the fairy tale,” Mr. Neumeier said in an e-mail message. “Without darkness there is no light.” But so little luminosity penetrates this adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” that the Disney version’s bubbly warmth is sorely missed at times.

I experienced a similar feeling while watching Mr. Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.” The Red Queen’s unmitigated cruelty, the many eye gougings and the horror-movie-like sight of graying human heads bobbing in a moat prevented me from being fully immersed in the film’s gorgeous wizardry.

Some reworkings of the children’s canon — the musical “Wicked” (loosely based on “The Wizard of Oz”) and the 2005 film of C. S. Lewis’s novel “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” — have managed to straddle the worlds of youthful wonder and more adult preoccupations. Lately, though, the most engaging narratives aimed primarily at the young have frequently been original stories, like Pixar’s “Wall-E” and Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket books.

Often burdened by the baggage of the versions that have preceded them, those artists adapting long-established children’s works for stage and screen tend to swing too far in the opposite direction. Maintaining a better balance between dark and light is key to creating successful adaptations.



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