Director and choreographer: David Nixon
Reviewer: Sophie Huggins
Diving fins first into their Autumn season is the Leeds based dance company Northern Ballet with a whimsical and watery reimagining of a classic: The Little Mermaid, a new ballet based on the 1837 Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. With all its creative elements forging a powerful show, it is unclear what leaves the mark not quite reached.
With a packed auditorium at their pointe shoes, the inventive company begin on a bright note delving deep into an underwater world complete with magical shimmering costumes (Kimie Nakano), a graceful flowing ensemble and even delightful sea creatures, created by Patrick O’Mahony and Stuart Fairhurst. Swimming amongst this entrancing image is Marilla, a little mermaid (Abigail Prudames) who lives in the ocean with her older sisters who are all of the accepted age to view the human world that lives above once a year. Now of age, it is Marilla’s first glimpse at human life after years of hearing her sisters’ stories and she spots a dancing prince (Joseph Taylor) aboard a ship and instantly falls in love. This love propels her to save his life when a storm ensues later on, but, much to her disappointment, upon waiting for humans to come and help him off the sand, he mistakes his storm rescuer for another woman and seemingly falls in love. Desperate to win her prince back, Marilla makes a decision that will alter her future in the sea forever.
The music becomes a vital narrator in this fairytale, echoing Marilla’s fall from a huge high to an unforeseeable low, with a score darting from light staccato bounces to mournful aching harmonies. Sally Beamish, the composer, exquisitely creates a unique personality for every scene all with a consistent hint of folk, a hark to the origins of Mermaids. At times, the conventions of live sound are a little confused as the mermaid’s singing voice is uncreatively mimed, yet there is live clapping which can feel jarring, however, the evocative musical score makes this easily forgotten. In harmony with the journeying music, is the intricate and delicate choreography, by David Nixon. It is undeniable that there is an unyielding depth of thought behind the orchestration of the beautiful stage pictures that Nixon creates. He skillfully utilises his ensemble as the stimulating choreography requires the cooperation of the entire cast to carry off its magic, which this ensemble undoubtedly does. Their excellent physical articulation blends with a sense of play to create a charming innocence, especially in the underwater scenes. The duet when the Prince and Marilla first meet, admirably executed by Prudames and Taylor is simply stunning; a true credit not only to the inventive choreography but to their skill as performers.
The lighting also plays a pivotal role in this production. It’s simple yet ingenious design by Tim Mitchell perfectly depicts and separates the underwater world and the human world which, if properly relied upon, could save the cast several unnecessary scene changes. With ‘the grass is always greener’ becoming a recurring theme to this story, Mitchell expertly captures the glow, the mystery, the irresistible attraction to the ‘other world’.
In the second half, the story becomes clouded and the energy dips, losing the narrative some much needed momentum. Despite every creative element evidently bringing its moment of magic to this ballet, there still remains something missing. Having a female placed centre stage should feel like a resonant and progressive image yet when the narrative revolves around her quest for male attention, it simply feels like another missed opportunity, another Princess story to add to the perpetual pile.
Sadly, there is an element of style over substance as despite the productions enormous creative success, the urgent, ravenous need for the world to hear this story is absent. This lack of resonance will always water down any striking stage picture, no matter how beautiful.
Runs until Saturday 25 November 2017 | Image: Emma Kauldhar