Writer: Hans Christian Anderson
Director, Choreographer & Costume Designer: David Nixon
Composer: Sally Beamish
Reviewer: Holly Spanner
Originally published in 1837, the Hans Christian Anderson fairy story has been adapted on countless occasions for film, television, print and theatre over its 180-year history. The most famous of these, of course, being the Disney 1989 animated movie. David Nixon’s version with Northern Ballet is a unique adaptation in its own right. There is still an element of rose-tinted glasses with this production, but beyond the glamorous visuals is a dark and melancholy story.
Far below the world as we know it, lays the underwater realm of the sea-people. The Little Mermaid, Marilla (Abigail Prudames) and her best friend Dillion the Seahorse (Kevin Poeung) live a happy life, playing with her sisters and marvelling at the trinkets they bring down from the surface. A locket, containing a picture of a handsome young prince, captures her attention. So much so, that she decides to ascend in search of this human, much to the concern of Dillion. Angered and frightened by this, Lyr, Lord of the Sea (Matthew Topliss), creates a huge storm that destroys the Prince’s ship, threatening the lives of the men on board. Marilla rescues the Prince, pulling him ashore, and he in a daze, remembers only her beautiful voice. Desperate for his love, Marilla pleads with Lyr, who reluctantly agrees to give her legs – but only if she sacrifices the one thing that the prince remembers; her voice.
Underwater, a shabby-chic set surrounds the sea-people, the mottled vintage-style mirrors reflecting only portions of David Nixon’s costumes in beautiful shades of greens and blues. The set is functional and versatile as it rotates to reveal the land, and a stark contrast of rocky outcrops, moving the narrative along at good pace. Underwater, Tim Mitchell’s lighting streams down like sunbeams penetrating the icy depths of the ocean; enchanting and untouched by man. Reflecting off the mermaid’s sequinned garments, the dappled sunlight enhances the ethereal quality of this magical underwater world.
The dancing and choreography, as one would expect from Northern Ballet, is sublime. Marilla and her sisters are held aloft, floating through the water, while large jellyfish puppets create a wonderful sense of scale. The dancers move with a fluidity seen only in water itself, their tails swirling with the deep sea currents. Following her success with Birmingham Royal Ballet, The Tempest, Composer Sally Beamish returns with another original score. Full bodied, cinematic and lush, the music moves along with the ebbs and flows of the sea. Eerie and haunting at times, it is contrasted by jaunty sea shanties of the land folk.
With the deadly bargain made, a writhing Marilla suffers great pain as her tail is split apart, giving her the legs she desires. Every step is agony but driven by her memories of the sea, she moves with grace, enchanting the land folk at a celebration of the summer’s fishing catch. Above the water, muted earth tones of the land folk highlight Marilla’s blonde hair, aquamarine colours, and just how different she is, as she dances among them.
Despite her sacrifice, Marilla never truly belongs to this world. She is driven to remain by her unrequited love of the Prince, while her sisters and Dillion miss her with such heartache that they too make a bargain with Lyr in a doomed bid to bring her home.
The fourth in a year of premieres for Northern Ballet, The Little Mermaid is absorbing, intellegent and superbly choreographed. This is a ballet as much about the Prince, as it is Marilla, and how the pursuit of happiness comes at a price. How when you truly love someone, you wish for their happiness above your own. How enduring immeasurable heartache and physical pain is bearable, but how those looking in see only pity at a life wasted.
Runs until 17 December 2017 | Image: Emma Kauldhar