The captivating magic of Danish author Hans Christan Anderson’s tale of “The Little Mermaid” is alive and well. First published in 1837, the story of a mermaid from an underwater kingdom who falls for a human prince has since been turned into musical theater, anime, opera, film, and ballet. Now Eugene Ballet artistic director Toni Pimble has taken on an ambitious reimagination of the fairytale, which will debut on May 20-21 with live music performed by Orchestra Next.
When considering a story to choreograph, Toni Pimble was looking for something that appealed to all ages, but didn’t want to pander to children. “They are so very open to a sophisticated presentation of a fairy tale. Our classical ballets ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Swan Lake’ are great examples of this genre,” says Pimble. “The more I delved into the music of Debussy, the more convinced I became that ‘The Little Mermaid’ had the potential to be a sophisticated, beautiful work of art.”
Pimble engaged artisans from a variety of disciplines in the challenge of creating an underwater world on stage.
She started talking to artist Steven Oshatz several years ago about her vision for the ballet. Oshatz is a painter, photographer, and silk designer who founded a silk design and manufacturing studio, Tancho Images, in Eugene. He took on the task of creating a massive 50-foot silk drop for the underwater scenes in the show.
“Creating the 30 by 50 foot silk drop for the underwater scenes was a daunting task,” Oshatz said. He airbrushed each 30-foot silk panel in striking shades of blue and green to give a sense of both the depth and movement of the ocean. Eärendil Biskup, Eugene Ballet’s associate technical director, helped create these silk scenes.
“I take a lot of pride in being a stagehand and everything that goes with that,” said Biskup, “and to be a part of a company that lets me be an artist, too, is pretty spectacular. In each detail, whether it’s the musicians, costumes, or dance, everyone has that personal investment. It is their art and taking pride in all of the details is what the audience ultimately gets to experience.”
Oshatz and Biskup also created smaller silk panels hand painted to resemble stormy waves. Dancers flitter across the stage with the silks attached to long poles, which are used to enable seamless changes between under and above water scenes.
The dancers in the underwater scenes move in flowing, sinuous movements that reflect the movement of the waves of silk. “Choreographically, all the underwater folk have open port de bras movements that give the sense of constant movement in the water,” says Pimble. “The mermaids were the biggest challenge. I created costumes with a sense of a tail and ruffles like gills. They are half skirts leaving the front of the dancers’ legs free to move. I made rehearsal skirts knowing the costume would inform the movement of the mermaids. They did not inhibit movement as much as I initially feared. The little mermaid is initially a joyous creature, and her first entrance reflects this with two mermen partnering her in a swooping, diving lift.”
In addition to choreographing the performance, Pimble designed, sewed, and sourced the fabric for every underwater character’s costume. The underwater fabrics are shimmery with details that look like seaweed and gills. Headpieces were handcrafted by Angella Wilger and Dana Hansler and are intricately embellished with shells, jewels, and glitter to look like imagined aquatic creatures.
Oshatz also used his silkscreening skills to create three life-like sea creatures: a blue-ringed octopus, a leafy sea dragon, and a blue glaucus. Local artist Caroline Barnes then turned these striking silks into the sea creatures that Eugene Ballet Academy students float across the stage in underwater scenes.
In contrast to the vibrant blues and greens of the underwater world, the costumes by designer Axel Dāzee for the characters on land are in pastels, whites, and creams. “The above the water scenes are completely contrasted with light-colored costumes on a white ship with the ocean beyond giving a bleached by the sun effect.” explains Pimble. “Above the water, I consciously returned to a more contained port de bras and a more classical vocabulary. We even added a Bournonville pas de bourrée in one of the men’s dances acknowledging both Anderson and Bournonville’s Danish nationality.”
The music of composer Claude Debussy played live by Orchestra Next, a Eugene-based training orchestra which puts aspiring young orchestral musicians alongside professional musicians, will heighten the drama of this tale of being torn between two worlds. Brian McWhorter, Orchestra Next’s music director, prepared the arrangement of Debussy’s famous composition, “La Mer,” along with some lesser-known works. “It’s just this wash of color with these hints of phrases sometimes or these moments when something kind of pops out, but it’s in this atmosphere,” says McWhorter. “It’s gorgeous music, it’s fun to play, and I hope it’ll be just as fun to listen to.”
Each retelling of this classic story brings a fresh sense of wonder, and Eugene Ballet’s “The Little Mermaid” promises to be a feast for the senses.
Tickets and showtimes
“The Little Mermaid with Orchestra Next” runs May 20 at 7:30 pm and May 21 at 2:00 pm. Tickets are priced from $25 to $60, with $15 youth and college tickets (with valid ID) and are available at https://eugeneballet.org/performances/little-mermaid/ at the Hult Center Ticket Office in person and by phone at 541-682-5000.