Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mermaid Revisited

I wrote here last Thursday about seeing John Neumeier's U.S. debut production of The Little Mermaid at San Francisco Ballet. Saturday night I saw it a second time, again with Yuan Yuan Tan (seen above in a close-up from the program) dancing the Mermaid. On Thursday I mentioned Rita Felciano's review on danceviewtimes, in which she praised the performances and the production but expressed reservations about the staying power of the choreography itself: "The problem ... is that Neumeier, who is theatrically so inventive, as a choreographer works with an extremely limited palette." I was inclined to be skeptical about Felciano's criticism after one viewing. Now, after seeing the production twice, I'd like nothing better than to see it half a dozen more times, secure in the conviction that Neumeier's "limited palette" is analogous to the painter Mark Rothko's "limited palette" – a level of economy and compression only to be earned (by the lucky and the gifted) after decades of artistic exploration.

My Saturday night companion absolutely agreed about what we were seeing: a new-born creature we had thought to be long extinct, a fully convincing full-length tragedy. My Thursday night companion, on the other hand, had a problem with the essential premise of the plot. Why in the first place, he wondered, would the two-in-one character of the poet/mermaid (bursting with exquisitely refined perceptions) fall in love with this bland nonentity, this cookie-cutter "handsome prince"?

"Oh, I can see that he's big and muscular," my Thursday night companion said with disdain, assuring me that he would feel the same if the love-interest were a pulchritudinous empty-headed woman instead of a pulchritudinous empty-headed man. I couldn't answer this objection at the time. Why is the mermaid/poet expending all this anguish over a Playgirl centerfold? The question left me dumbfounded, as if I had been asked to explain the allure of Helen of Troy. Nobody ever suggested she was a stimulating conversationalist, or that she had any particular attributes at all, except for the odd and singular one of embodying divinity in her flesh. And that is all that can be said of a thousand different fairy-tale princes as well. The myth, like any other, goes up in smoke under rational interrogation.

But most of us, at some point, have loved like that – loved the indefinable glow (of a person, or of some less corporeal aspiration) and smashed ourselves into a bloody pulp against an iron barricade of obtuseness, obliviousness, indifference, impassivity. It is a losing game. A game for the young. I would no longer play it, could no longer play it if I wanted to, and I don't. But through Neumeier's art (and the art of Yuan Yuan Tan and of the other artists of the company) I can revisit (and even exalt) ancient oceans of pain and loss, and regard them in a new way as old friends.