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A Sad Tail

San Francisco Ballet's 'The Little Mermaid'

by Dean Speer

December 16, 2011 -- PBS broadcast

Weighing in at about an hour too long [of two hours], John Neumier’s opus is well-crafted, if unnecessarily lengthy. My other fuss would be that he allows himself to be pulled into using some hack movement and gestures. Editing would strengthen this ballet and make it more palatable to the general public’s state and taste.

The performance is a triumph for its star, Yuan Yuan Tan, whose amazing length of limb and textured dancing and acting lift the work from the maudlin to the sublime. Yuan Yuan is one of those rare dancers in a class of her own whose physical attributes, combined with technical audacity and depth of feeling and artistry make each performance special.

Her depiction of her transition from losing her tail to trying to learn to walk shows the physical and psychological pain this character allows herself to be put through, but to no avail.

It was the first time I had seen Tiit Helimets and we were not disappointed. Possessing also a lovely technique – clearly he’d had top rate training, Helimets also brought depth to his characterization of the privileged ship captain, a piece of the story that also tends to suggest not only a sea creature trying to fulfill love on land but also a class difference, that creates an unbridgeable gulf.

Davit Karapetyan got to dance and act up a storm – almost literally as the sea witch who temps and lures the mermaid into trading fin for feet and who later suggests that she murder her love object in order to get her tail – and her former life – back.

Dance on television is a good thing -- as is anything that brings this art to a wider public and especially to those whose communities don’t have ballet -- but it can also be problematic. Most of the corps work could not be seen as the cameras were zoomed in on the principal characters, with some notable exceptions – sailors whose early group dance set the working relationship they have with their captain – and his detachment from reality [he’s more occupied with playing onboard golf than running the ship – does he even know how?] and the wedding reception scene where Ariel is forced to carry the wedding dress train of her rival.

Overall, a joy to see the remarkable and respected San Francisco Ballet, even if the ballet itself was a little long and the medium not as ideal as personally being in the audience of the historic and grand War Memorial Opera House.

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