The Little Mermaid

David Nixon, music by Sally Beamish

Northern Ballet

Sheffield Lyceum Theatre

From 28 November 2017 to 02 December 2017

Review by Velda Harris

Northern Ballet’s The Little Mermaid is a feast for the eye with delicate individual performances by the principal dancers, impressionistic scenes representing the underwater world and lively and well characterised dance sequences by sailors, schoolgirls and courtiers in the human world.

Adapted from the story by Hans Christian Andersen, the new ballet had a remarkably short gestational life of only 13 months and was ready for performance in October 2017. Director and choreographer David Nixon was understandably attracted to the scenario for the contrast it provides between the underwater world and life on terra firma and particularly the challenge it presents in giving balletic form to waves and shipwrecks as well as the apparently effortless swimming of the underwater creatures.

The moralistic tale is about love and self-sacrifice. Marilla, the Little Mermaid, rises to the surface of the sea where she falls in love with Prince Adair and saves his life when his ship is wrecked. She persuades her father, Lyr, Lord of the Sea, to give her a potion which will allow her to join the human community. Lyr reluctantly agrees but the price she has to pay is that she will be unable to speak and that walking will be incredibly painful.

Marilla is heartbroken when Adair marries Dana, mistakenly supposing that it was she who saved his life, and, when she decides to return to the sea, Lyr will only permit this if she kills her prince. This she cannot do and sacrifices herself for love.

The visual aspects of the production are stunning. Kimie Nakano’s simple adaptable set, supplemented by Tim Mitchell’s effective lighting design and Julie Anderson’s fluid costumes, effectively suggest the underwater world and with minimal adjustment also represent the sails of a ship and white cliff walls.

Dreda Blow is a lithe and beautiful Marilla, who rises and weaves almost effortlessly in the water and clearly communicates the appalling pain she is in when she tries to walk or dance in the human scenes. Giuliano Contadini is an effective and vigorous romantic lead in his pas de deux with Blow and with Hannah Bateman as Dana.

There are good performances in supporting roles. Matthew Koon is sympathetic as Dillon the seahorse, Marilla’s best friend, and his lobster-coloured costume brings a strong touch of contrast to the early scenes. Ashley Dixon is a commanding presence as Lyr, the villain of the piece.

The huge corps de ballet in its various manifestations is at the heart of this production and Nixon’s choreography finds opportunities for a light touch and wit. The vigorous sailors’ dance is a delight as is the later scene of the suppressed schoolgirls being shepherded by two nuns. There are also scenes of high drama as in the sinking of the ship when drowning sailors stretch out desperate hands for help. As in all of these sea-related scenes, it is the support provided by members of the corps which create the illusion of swimming or drowning.

This is an exciting production in which the fairly complex storyline is made very clear by the use of mime and the large corps de ballet scenes, in the sea and on land, are extremely effective.