The innovative Northern Ballet bring their bold and punchy version of the classic tale to Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre.
Masterminded by the company’s Artistic Director David Nixon OBE, The Little Mermaid tells the story of Marilla, a mermaid with a lust for adventure who sacrifices her ocean life to pursue Prince Adair (her love-at-first-sight) after rescuing him from a perilous storm. So far, so familiar. But Nixon’s adaptation flips the fairy tale on its head; Marilla’s voiceless and agonisingly painful time on earth is spent watching on helplessly as her prince falls in love with the young Princess Dana.
Drawing obvious connotations of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, this twist in the tale provides a truly refreshing take on the somewhat overdone “love triangle”. Unusually, Marilla’s competitor is not portrayed as a caricature of a scheming, jealous woman; instead, both characters are multi-faceted, likeable figures caught up in the messy struggles of real-world relationships. Likewise, the manipulative ocean-witch of Disney fame is replaced by Lyr, the tyrannical Lord of the Sea. Perhaps it’s a step too far to call this a comment on the patriarchy, but there’s no question that Northern Ballet are taking the “innocent virgin/evil enchantress” binary favoured in many traditional ballets and blowing it apart.
Dreda Blow’s engaging portrayal of Marilla also thwarts many a stereotype of the formidable prima ballerina – she is in turn heroic and vulnerable, pained and playful, and her commitment to drama is worthy of as much merit as her technical prowess. Blow heads a strong line-up of talented dancers, and with the knowledge that the entire cast swaps roles for each performance, their mastery of Nixon’s intricate choreography becomes all the more impressive.
The dynamic story is complemented by Kimie Nakano’s outstanding set design and Tim Mitchell’s thoughtful lighting, which effortlessly convey the transition between sunlit land and mysterious sea. Performed live by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia, Sally Beamish’s original score is exciting and varied, with impressionist segments reflecting the underwater scenes along with more traditional court-style dances in the second half.
At times, the complex melodies combined with ever-moving dance formations make for a sensory overload. However, if you’re of the opinion that ballet is boring, this is definitely the show to prove you wrong – the whole production is visually stunning. Northern Ballet boasts an established reputation for attracting more diverse audiences than the average company with their unorthodox adaptations of popular tales including The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, 1984, and Jane Eyre, which will visit the Lyceum in April 2018. The Little Mermaid shows they have no plans to stop shaking up the ballet world.
The Little Mermaid plays at the Lyceum Theatre until Saturday 2 December.
Photograph by Emma Kauldhar.