Long before Walt Disney plastered the smiling face of Princess Ariel on a million backpacks, there was Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” the tragic title protagonist of his 1837 fairy tale. Born a water nymph, she ends up transformed into a free-flying spirit of the air, after undergoing a crash course in human suffering and heartbreak.
Sadly, choreographer-librettist-designer John Neumeier’s 2005 version of “The Little Mermaid” story, now enjoying a two-week run with the Joffrey Ballet, is neither fish nor fowl. Despite outstanding, character-defining dancing by the leads, a varied and atmospheric score composed by Lera Auerbach and capably conducted by Scott Speck, lovely aqua-tinted lighting by Neumeier and assisted by Jim French, and jaw-dropping stage effects on a Disneyesque scale, the ballet never reaches the deeper levels of Andersen’s allegorical tale of what it means to be human. It comes across as a gorgeous cartoon, an overelaborate presentation not so much of tragic insight as adolescent angst. The result is a show that, as a whole, grownups are apt to find cloying and superficial, and children may find long, baffling and dull. And ballet fans of all ages will miss the absence of meaningful, show-stopping dance numbers featuring the Joffrey’s reliably superb corps de ballet.
The fault definitely doesn’t lie with the five lead dancers, each of whom skillfully meld precise, athletic movement—in a contemporary ballet mode—with expressive theatricality. Victoria Jaiani is a splendidly lithe and sinuous mermaid, using her long, flexible fingers to great effect in communicating her watery, wavelike nature in the underwater scenes, and then later, after her painful metamorphosis, acrobatically twisting her legs into odd angles to indicate the awkwardness of life on land. Tall and powerfully built Dylan Gutierrez plays the hunky Prince, the object of the mermaid’s unrequited affection, with an amiable nonchalance that at times shades into vapid indifference. Stefan Goncalvez is game in the less-rewarding part of the Poet, a Hans Christian Andersen stand-in who bumbles and stalks his way through the ballet as the mermaid’s accidental creator and semi-detached observer. Anais Bueno sparkles as the pink-clad, low-maintenance Princess who captures the Prince’s heart, and Yoshihisa Arai’s Sea Witch, who gives the mermaid a shaky pair of legs in exchange for her beautiful tail (represented by a long, flowing pair of silky Turkish trousers), is strikingly angular and ominous, a grim figure symbolizing both death and transfiguration.
Some of the early scenes are arresting, especially an erotic pas de deux when the mermaid rescues the unconscious Prince from drowning, enfolding him in a loving, undulating embrace, and a rousing, Jerome Robbins-esque chorus of sailors accompanying the Prince. But by and large, Neumeier’s choreography is less than thrilling, with an emphasis on the mermaid’s terrestrial clumsiness rather than her aquatic grace. Virtually every scene has a grotesque or surreal flavor, and eventually the oddness becomes heavy and monotonous. The Poet’s framing story is an intrusive distraction until the very end, when he and the mermaid perform an intimate, tightly meshed duet, bringing the two levels of the narrative together. It’s one of the show’s few moments of pure, pleasing, unlabored beauty.
We never come to understand why the sensitive, pure-hearted mermaid falls so hard for the shallow, lunk-headed Prince, a frat-boy type so dim he plays golf on the deck of a ship and almost drowns diving overboard after a stray ball. Thanks to this central mismatch, the main story remains on the level of a YA novel about a plain-Jane high school girl yearning for the attention of the star quarterback, who in turn has eyes only for the prom queen.
Drenched in self-pity, imbued with more moments of gee-whiz spectacle than plausible emotion, this “Little Mermaid” sinks into melodrama rather than soaring into some kind of higher truth. Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale is about a magical creature who has every blessing, but lacks a soul, and so goes in search of one. This ballet, for all its technical triumphs and high-voltage production value, mirrors its protagonist’s own plight.
Joffrey Ballet at the Civic Opera House, 20 North Upper Wacker, (312)386-8905, joffrey.org, tickets starting at $36. Through April 30.