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Korean premiere of Neumeier's 'The Little Mermaid' brings tale of love, sacrifice to stage

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : April 24, 2024 - 18:44

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John Neumeier (right), director and chief choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet, and Kang Sue-jin, CEO and artistic director of the Korean National Ballet, attend a press conference at the Seoul Arts Center in Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap) John Neumeier (right), director and chief choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet, and Kang Sue-jin, CEO and artistic director of the Korean National Ballet, attend a press conference at the Seoul Arts Center in Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap)

The Korean National Ballet is gearing up for the eagerly awaited Korean premiere of John Neumeier's adaptation of "The Little Mermaid" at the Seoul Arts Center, scheduled for May 1-5.

Neumeier, widely acknowledged as one of today's foremost choreographers, has lead the world-renowned Hamburg Ballet since 1973 as its director and chief choreographer. With a prolific career spanning over five decades, he has crafted more than 170 pieces.

Currently in Seoul overseeing the KNB's rehearsals, Neumeier said, “'The Little Mermaid’ is a good choice for the first production that we will do (together),” during a press conference held at the SAC on Tuesday.

“The principle and the philosophy behind all of my work is the attempt to humanize ballet, to make the dancers the living shape of emotion,” he said. “(‘The Little Mermaid’) goes very much back to the original story of Hans Christian Andersen, which is quite different (from) the interpretation of Walt Disney. So I think one will be surprised by certain aspects of the piece.”

The Royal Danish Ballet premiered the work in 2005 at the Copenhagen Opera House in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth. Neumeier also oversaw the staging, set design and costumes for the production.

John Neumeier, director and chief choreographer of Hamburg Ballet, speaks during a press conference at the Seoul Arts Center in Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap) John Neumeier, director and chief choreographer of Hamburg Ballet, speaks during a press conference at the Seoul Arts Center in Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap)

“The theme in ‘The Little Mermaid’ is very particular,” Neumeier said. “The mermaid, who is a beautiful creature in her own world, has a desire to go beyond her world because of love. Going beyond means a great personal sacrifice and a great pain. … The story teaches us no matter how much we may love someone, this does not make the other person responsible (for loving us).”

The choreographer noted that the story felt like an autobiography of Anderson and the unhappy love affair of the Danish author. He introduced the character of the Poet as the narrative opener. The ballet begins with the tears of the Poet, who attends the wedding of his beloved, and from a single teardrop that falls into the sea, the Little Mermaid is born.

“The story happened because of an unhappy love affair of his. So in a sense, he is the Little Mermaid, or the Little Mermaid is his soul. … Hans Christian Andersen lives for us because of the great stories that he wrote.”

"The Little Mermaid" (Theater Hamburg)

Neumeier described the role of the Little Mermaid as “very demanding” because it requires mastery of different techniques -- a contemporary sense of movement and a fluid, flowing motion. He said he drew inspiration from different cultures, particularly from Noh, a Japanese-style dance-drama. The idea of long trousers extending beyond the feet could create the illusion of a mermaid’s tailfin.

“In the beginning, she is wearing these very long trousers. She must give us the impression that this is not a difficulty, but as if she were wearing the most beautiful gown. Then she has these torn off of her and in a sense, she is naked and her movement becomes ugly. And later she is determined, like a young ballet student, to accomplish the dancing on pointe.”

Neumeier added they have “very interesting mermaids.” The casting was announced after the press conference. Cho Yeon-jae and Choi Yu-jeong were chosen for the role of the Little Mermaid.

John Neumeier (left) and Kang Sue-jin pose for photos after a press conference at the Seoul Arts Center in Seoul, Tuesday. (Korean National Ballet) John Neumeier (left) and Kang Sue-jin pose for photos after a press conference at the Seoul Arts Center in Seoul, Tuesday. (Korean National Ballet)

Kang Sue-jin, CEO and artistic director of the KNB, expressed her excitement about the ballet company's first collaboration with Neumeier. Kang was the first Korean to receive the prestigious Benois de la Danse in 1999 for her performance in Neumeier‘s “The Lady of the Camellias” during her years with the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany.

“She was a very great interpreter of the role of Marguerite in ‘The Lady of the Camellias.’ I enjoyed it very much because I felt that she was a dancer who was interested in understanding the emotional structure of this role and developing it in her own way,” said Neumeier.

Kang noted that the KNB had been trying to stage Neumeier’s works for quite some time.”

“When I was a dancer, I worked on many of John's works and felt keenly that he was a genius choreographer who could direct ballet as if it were a movie or drama," she said.

"While working on his pieces, I could feel all the emotions -- humanity, love and sadness -- and was very happy and grateful for the moments of dancing. I wanted to share those emotions with the dancers, and to bring them to the Korean audience,” she said.