Ballet North - The Little Mermaid at Theatre Royal
Given that Hans Andersen’s famous tale is about finding your feet (while losing your voice) it makes both an obvious and an odd choice for a ballet, but perhaps the fact that this new version had David Nixon not just as director but also as choreographer, costume designer and writer of the scenario delivered a wonderfully integrated piece where visuals, dance and drama all echoed each other to absorbing effect. Disney it isn’t – no obvious happy ending here – but a thoroughly literate take on themes of desire, alienation and sacrifice expressed through movement and music, with a wonderful score by Sally Beamish. A full orchestra added to the sheer sensory richness of the performance, with a few compelling touches of eerie vocal embellishment to remind us that Marilla the mermaid’s entrancing siren voice must be given up in order to gain legs and pursue her love for a mortal man.
The scenes under the sea create a remarkable sense of liquid flow and eddy in an environment of cool blues and greens broken only by the thunderous shades worn by Lyr the Sea King and the sparking touch of red brought by Dillion the sea horse, one of the few comic notes in the story. There’s a wonderfully effective storm, a minimally presented fusion of sound and tightly controlled kinetic energy, then the warm, sociable earth colours of life on dry land, the ordered and human world to which the shipwrecked hero should belong. Marilla’s naïve decision to follow him is painful to watch, as all her flowing, sea-borne movement are exchanged for the agony of unfamiliar legs, uncertain steps and a thoroughly alien environment. That she can never belong to this world was signalled by movement, stance, colour and – dare I say it? – acting. Ballet is sometimes thought of as an almost abstract form of performance, where the integration of movement and music is complete in itself, as much conceptual as sensory, with the purist notion that too much narrative content might break the spell. “The Little Mermaid” defies this slightly chilly expectation with the warmth of its telling and the sheer intelligence of its brilliant design and the physical presence of its dancers, creating two worlds while leaving its audience in the liminal space between them.