David Nixon has created a magical masterpiece with Northern Ballet’s production of The Little Mermaid, presented at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre on Thursday evening. Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale is a familiar one, yet Northern Ballet interprets the story with such imagination and character that the old tale feels new and exciting.

Every element of the production comes together perfectly to evoke the mermaid’s marine world and the contrasting dry land she visits. The scenery is deceptively simple, just two concave metal curves that flip round to form bumpy white towers, but this solitary set piece is used masterfully to create underwater backdrops, a ship’s bow, seaside caves and palace walls.

For the underwater scenes the lighting is a washed out blue, the dancers wear glittering aqua costumes and, periodically, a giant jellyfish is carried slowly across the back of the stage. Sally Beamish’s beautiful Celtic-inspired music seems to have no pulse; the soft horns, lower woodwind and harp create a watery five-tone soundscape calling to mind the impressionism of Debussy.

Nixon’s flowing choreography shows an intricate understanding of a body’s movement underwater. The dancers’ motions are slow and easy but there is always a resistance being pushed against, effectively conveying the medium of water. Three mermaids are carried aloft by the ensemble playing the currents, and their swimming, swooping and diving is a fantastic way of using the vertical dimension that can so easily be travelled underwater. Later, when the Prince (Joseph Taylor) is drowning and the Little Mermaid (Abigail Prudames) saves him, the spectacular lifts are used narratively to show her above him, dragging him towards the surface.

The only splash of bright colour comes from the vibrant pink seahorse, the Little Mermaid’s best friend. Dancer Kevin Poeung’s earnest expressions as he bounces and wiggles alongside the graceful Prudames are very endearing, as are his wide-eyed concern, and knocked knees as he pleads with the Little Mermaid to refuse the fateful bargain to exchange her voice for painful legs. He is even arguably the most tragic character in the ballet; the lingering image at the close of both acts is of him missing his friend. 

The first transition from the underwater to the surface world is very effective. A white sheet floats downwards into view, evoking first sea foam and then, as the set piece is pushed into place and a mast is lowered, a ship’s sail. The pale blue lighting of the underwater scenes is traded for a summery yellow, although wavy blue patterns are filtered over the stage each time the Prince starts to remember his ordeal under the water and the beautiful singer who saved him. The clear reverberated wordless call used for the Little Mermaid’s voice is hauntingly beautiful.

The memory never lasts long as the Prince is distracted by his fiancée, a role sweetly danced by Dreda Blow. Beamish’s musical talent shines through with the gorgeous waltz that accompanies Blow and Taylor’s duets. The waltz relies on a steady beat and provides a thematic, as well as musical contrast to the long, pulseless motifs for the mermaid and her underwater world. The rest of the music that accompanies the surface dancers is also more regimented than the soft fluidity of the water world, but is written in a simple metre rather than the three-beat waltz used for the Prince and his fiancée.

There is a contrast throughout between the free, joyful dances between the Prince and fiancée, with playful little foot shuffles towards each other, and the indulging way he dances hide and seek with the Little Mermaid. Without her voice and with her odd mannerisms – leading with her head wherever she moves, as if still underwater, and invading others' personal space – the Prince views the Little Mermaid as a sweet child, never realising it was her who saved him. The audience, however, are shown in horrifying detail the searing pain she is feeling in her legs every second he is not around to distract her. Prudames’s legs contort jaggedly, twisted into various unnatural positions, her face scrunched in a silent scream. The bright white light and harsh chords that overwhelm the senses powerfully exemplify her agony. This is not just some naïve mute child, this is a woman enduring torturous pain in her pursuit of love.

The dramatic storm at the climax of the ballet is invigorating, with the dancers leaping in lunges to depict waves crashing against the ship. The mermaid’s dilemma is heartbreaking to watch, even when we know her final choice. The soothing epilogue after the storm, under the mournful call telling us the mermaid’s voice returned to her, is a bittersweet ending to a very sweet production.