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  • Angela Allyn

Darkly Gorgeous Little Mermaid at Joffrey

If you are taking a child to the Joffrey to see the Little Mermaid make its Chicago debut this month, make sure neither of you are expecting the bright optimistic Disneyfied rendition of the Hans Christian Andersen story, or even a faithful following of the actual fairy tale: it is an exquisite and dark rendering of the plot where a young girl offers literally everything to a man who does not know she exists and is somehow rewarded in heaven. There is no librettist credited in this production, so I surmise that the narrative was created by John Neumeier, the choreographer, who trained in Copenhagen where a statue of the Mermaid guards the harbor.

Neumeier has added a character of Poet to the plot, and the synopsis notes that it is the Poet’s longing for his friend after the relationship changes upon his marriage that brings the Mermaid into existence. I have all kinds of questions here– so much about that unrequited love is implied) The Mermaid is some kind of embodiment of the Poet’s tender emotions. This dear missed friend becomes a doltish captain on a ship who is golfing(???) and follows a lost ball into the drink nearly drowning. The Mermaid saves him and seems to become enamored. She places him on land where he is discovered by schoolgirls, one of whom cannot resist the soggy lad, and the two hit it off famously.

The Mermaid determines to compete for the affections and love of the tall handsome man and searches for the Sea Witch, a masculine entity who bears a slight resemblance to Darth Maul. Having a male Sea Witch heightens the patriarchal use of the Mermaid perhaps– an interesting twist that gives me more questions.

The Mermaid becomes human via the powers of the Sea Witch exchanging her tail for legs in an excruciating sequence that is a transmutation bordering on assault. Afterwards,walking is intensely painful and she remains socially awkward and marginalized by all even as the Edvard Captain (program says Prince)and his schoolgirl Princess commit to one another.

The second act begins with the now human Mermaid in a box struggling against the limitations of her new legs, and one presumes society’s lack of acceptance for her. Edvard marries the other girl and the Poet and the Mermaid are despondent. There is a punk scene that appears as entertainment at the wedding that includes the Sea Witch and he gives the Mermaid a knife to kill Edvard in exchange for a return of her tail, but she cannot and the Poet and Mermaid ascend to the stars in a stunningly lovely scene.

This plot left me with so many big thoughts: about how men's perspectives of how women love is so inherently misogynistic: Edvard is a sea captain and how good do we think his marriage to a school girl Princess is going to be? How there was a missed opportunity to deal with how men love each other. I also had some issues with the world Neumeier built: we are asked to believe the fantastical yards of fabric the dancers must manipulate are fish tails, but then the Mermaid shuffles across the stage on legs hobbled by the very same fabric: far better to have her entire existence swimming on the bunraku style puppeteers that introduce her to us.

But this is a ballet, not a play or an opera, and at the end of the day this was about dance, and the dance was exquisite and sublime.

This is a production you simply must experience. It takes us to deep places, and not just in the ocean.

Victoria Jaiani is absolutely gorgeous as the Mermaid with her liquid arms however it is her talent as a dramatic spirit that allows us to begin to fathom the pain and loss of the choices her character must make. She is wounded and awkward and uncomfortably barefoot– three states that I have never seen this prima ballerina in before. She fulfills and extends these emotional spaces just as she fulfills a leg extension or arched back. Masculine ideal Dylan Gutierrez dancing as the Edvard/Prince/Captain is the perfect yang to Jaiani’s yin— confident, entitled, clueless and charming. He is earth to Jaiani’s water. Stefan Voncalvez as the Poet is self-effacing,painfully nervous and sensitive to a fault. Anais Bueno as the Princess Schoolgirl is that perky beautiful talented Disney Princess we came looking for.

Neumeier's set is luscious, starting with the watercolor curtain that greets the audience upon arrival in the theater. An ingenious abstract waterline mesmerizes throughout the evening. The tiny ships that embark upon the backdrop tell of time passing– the set is a visual masterwork worthy of watching on its own. Neumeier's costumes are delicious, from the Mermaids with extensive tales, to the gowns at the wedding. Lera Auerbach’s score, conducted by Scott Speck and played by the Lyric Opera Orchestra is moving and perfectly matched to this complex and unusual work.

You don’t have time to wait to see the remarkable show: it is playing Thursday through Sunday until April 30th at the Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive, in downtown Chicago. For tickets go to

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