Sunday, March 28, 2010

SF Ballet's THE LITTLE MERMAID

Great night day and night yesterday with our friends.

We started off by going to Universal Cafe in San Francisco with Hawk.  Food was great -- I had biscuits with gravy and a poached egg and sausage.  And mango mimosa.  Needless to say it was heavy food.  Will and Hawk played a board game (while I napped), then off to Tartine Bakery for some delicious chocolate croissant. Great!

Later in the evening, Will and I met Gina and Vishal at Jardiniere, a French restaurant right next to the Opera House.  Highlight of the meal was a "wild boar" appetizer -- apparently a wild boar had gotten into the pig pen at Jardiniere's pork supplier farm, and a while later there is a hybrid wild boar / regular pork dish at the restaurant.



Then off to the ballet.  This particular The Little Mermaid was originally created in Denmark, Hans Christian Anderson's home, and the program notes said that this story may be the most autobiographical of all of his fairy tales.  According to the notes, Hans Christian Anderson fell in love several times, with both women and men, but nothing really worked out for him.

The program notes continued to say that in this particular ballet, there is a character called the Poet, who is always present throughout the story, who has created the mermaid as a projection of his suffering and love for the Prince, who is getting married to a woman.  I had thought about The Little Mermaid as a literary piece before, mostly considering the story as an exposition on feminine sacrifice and self-violence -- there are women cutting themselves I think three times in the original story, ending in the mermaid's complete disintegration into "sea foam" because she will not kill her beloved prince.

This ballet changed my mind about how to interpret The Little Mermaid.  As a story examining feminine sacrifice, as I previously thought it was, it is rather repetitive, and does not really give an explanation for why women would be so willing to be self-destructive for their love.  As an allegory for desire, specifically homosexual desire, it makes perfect sense.  As a projection rather than a literal act, the mermaid's sacrifice becomes poetic rather than overdramatic.  This ballet made a clear division between the ethereal world of the mermaid and the absurd, class-centered world of the prince:



If the mermaid is an ethereal, not-of-this-world presence in comparison to the Ralph-Lauren-esque world of the prince and his court, then through this allegory, the Poet (HC Anderson) is stating that the love/desire of a gay man for his straight beloved is also ethereal, out of this world, too delicate and otherworldly to exist comfortably in the materialistic, class-centered world above water.  There was never a chance that the mermaid -- the Poet's love for the Prince -- could ever exist above water.  It was doomed from the start.

This production also examined the mermaid's loss of identity when she goes to the sea witch and asks to be created a human.  After she saves the prince from drowning, the little mermaid watches as he awakes to the caresses of a Catholic school girl (the Princess) in a drab gray dress.  To the little mermaid, this drab gray dress represents access to the prince.  So she takes the dress to the sea witch, and in a violent and disturbing scene where her outfit and tail are ripped from her, the little mermaid emerges naked (she had a nude leotard onstage) and with legs.

The costuming in this staging used references to cultural identity (and loss thereof) to underscore the plot point of the mermaid's loss of identity.  The mer-folks' costumes were modeled after (I think -- check the notes) Indonesian formal wear, and the drab gray dress that the mermaid wants so much is clearly European (little white collar and all).  When she trades her vibrant, jewel-toned turquoise mer-clothing for the drab gray dress, she is giving up culture and identity in order to become something that the prince would find acceptable -- even if this is drab and gray.  In her vibrant, jeweled, exotic mer-garb, there is no way they can be together; she needs to trade it in order to acclimate.

When you put Yuan Yuan Tan in that role, a SF Ballet principal dancer who I have been just DYING to see live, the ethnic aspects of this action are further emphasized.  I don't think it is a coincidence that all of the marketing documents for this ballet feature Tan.

And finally, when you take the mermaid as a metaphor for the gay experience, the storyline becomes even more tragic.  The gay Poet is essentially willing to give his body and soul, cut himself apart as the mermaid does, in order to trade his bright, vibrant, jewel-toned artistic male self for the drab gray dress that is nevertheless comfortingly conventional and entirely female.  Like the mermaid's tale, the aspects of the Poet's personality that make him beautiful and otherworldly (e.g., the personality that allows him to create these beautiful stories) also make the Prince totally inaccessible to him.  If the Poet could become a boring, conventional female, perhaps he could have access to the Prince.  In the little mermaid, he plays out this fantasy -- he gives her legs, lets her on the boat with the prince.  But even with this transformation, the mermaid is not equipped to pursue being with the Prince -- she is not the right class, can't figure out how to act to fit it, not a Princess.  She still fails.

This could have been an incredibly depressing ballet, but they did a wonderful job of closing it.  The notes say:


The little Mermaid is left alone. Her pain reflects the Poet’s own painful situation. Each seems the shadow of the other–each abandoned by the object of their intense love. They are one–creator and creation. It is the Poet’s love for his Mermaid that gives her the soul that will make her immortal, just as she, “The Little Mermaid,” will immortalize him. Courageous, they search for a new world.
This seems to me something like the terrifying stage direction, "Exit Chased by Bear" which is in Shakespeare's Cymboline.  How do you create this scene with the magnificence it deserves?  SF Ballet chose staging that would make Ed Iskander proud.  Using a black backdrop and a black stage of tiny glittering lights, they actually lifted the Mermaid and the Poet into heaven.  It was amazing.

Aside from the music, which I thought was sometimes great and sometimes strange, this was a great show.  Interesting premise, well thought out, well staged, and the first time I have seen Yuan Yuan Tan in a featured role.  I was so, so happy.