In celebration of its 55th anniversary this year, the National Ballet of China revived its beautiful production of The Little Mermaid. Created by John Neumeier in 2005 for the bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth,the ballet is a modern interpretation of the fairytale that dramatises all the sadness of the original.

© National Centre for the Performing Arts, China
© National Centre for the Performing Arts, China

The performance begins with a neon window into Andersen’s memory: a ship, where the poet – representing the author, Andersen – remembers his friend Edward’s wedding day with considerable pain. He follows his falling tears into the ocean, where his love for Edward forms a new soul – the Mermaid.

The Mermaid’s simple underwater life is rendered with uncomplicated beauty. Three shadowy figures in black enable her to swim through the air, diving and playing unencumbered by gravity. Wang Qi Ming’s graceful arms and supple spine give her a truly otherworldly appearance as the Mermaid. Her underwater duet with the Prince (danced by Li Jun), during which she saves his life and captivates him with her beauty, displays her spirited character through a freedom of movement that is lost when she loses her mesmerising tail.

The National Ballet of China takes us from the darkness of the Mermaid’s deep, watery world into the bright pomp and glamour of the ship. The flamboyance of life on the ship – the colourful costuming, formal dances, and all those people! – is utterly alienating for the Mermaid and, without her tail, she is awkward and knock-kneed.

Wang’s transition from an unmistakable, easy elegance into desperate imprisonment in her own body is breathtaking. Her stumbling, flailing attempts to walk are admirable, even adorable, but soon turn sour as the Mermaid is forced into a wheelchair, receiving only pity from the man she loves. Her hope visibly dissolves as she watches the soon-to-be Princess (danced by Wang Ye) dancing with (and seducing) the Prince with a carefree grace she cannot muster from her uncontrollable new feet.

© National Centre for the Performing Arts, China
© National Centre for the Performing Arts, China

Determined not to be restricted by her unsteady feet, she tries to dance but falls in with the sailors who dress her in men’s clothes and jeer at her awkward flat-footed attempts to copy them. She winds up as a bridesmaid at her love’s wedding, decked out in fuchsia pink and following the Princess’s train obediently. Her final attempt to win the Prince with the sound trapped in a conch shell does nothing but make her more vulnerable as he flirts and taunts her.

Contrary to Disney expectations, there are no friendly pals for the Little Mermaid here. She is alone in a cruel and uncompromising world. Her only comfort is her creator – the poet, danced by Zhou Zhao Hui. The relationship between these characters is difficult to discern but no less tender for it. He cares for this wretched young woman with kindness and warmth, literally and figuratively picking her up after every fall, and sharing in her pain. 

The Sea Witch, a male role danced by Shen Shi Dong, is as menacing a villain as one might imagine. Though not adorned with tentacles (or any other attribute characteristic of the creature's sea-bound life), his aesthetic is decidedly threatening, with parts of his pelvis and upper thighs visible, and his face and chest painted in black and white. He takes the mermaid’s tail with violent pleasure, leaving her near nude and apparently full of shame. His later appearance on the ship is utterly jarring, as he wears her tail like a pashmina and hands her a knife with which to earn it back.

Wang is like a wounded animal by the end of The Little Mermaid. The scenes in which she is trapped in the box-like doorway of the Prince’s room are performed with heartbreaking emotion from Wang. Her final transcendence with the Poet, who accompanies her into the stars, comes as a relief when her tortured body finds ethereal release. 

The Chinese National Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Zhang Yi, performed beautifully and were a point of fascination among the Chinese audience, many of whom peered into the pit during the interval. 

© National Centre for the Performing Arts, China
© National Centre for the Performing Arts, China
I was surprised to see many children in the audience. Either Disney’s version of this story or the NCPA’s low prices have given parents hope that they can engage their 3-year-olds. Unfortunately, the audience emptied out significantly before finale, and many of those who did stay resorted to using smartphone games to distract the children long enough to enjoy the show themselves. The beauty of it will enthrall young and old, but the subtleties of this story appeal best to adults.

The National Ballet of China’s production of The Little Mermaid is beautiful, tender and heartbreakingly sad from start to finish and thoroughly well performed all round, the company is certainly one to watch.

****1