“The Little Mermaid”
Czech National Ballet
The Estates Theatre
Prague, Czech Republic
January 26, 2019 (2:00 pm)
by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2019 by Ilona Landgraf
This week’s Economist features the title “Slowbalisation” – an invented term combining the notion that globalization is slowing down with the idea that regional relations are becoming weightier than ever. Prague’s Czech National Ballet is a prime example of how slowbalisation can be seen in the dance sector as well. The artistic team behind its “Little Mermaid”, a ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, is almost entirely Czech, complemented only by two Slovakians and one German.
The German – Andreas Sebastian Weiser – prepared the music and conducted the National Theatre Orchestra in performing a score by Czech composer Zbyněk Matějů. How did he distinguish between the water world and the world of the humans? In the water world, seagulls cry, the surf rushes, a trumpet plays a cheerful melody, a female voice sings with yearning – it’s the little mermaid (Magdalena Matějková) longing for the prince (Matěj Šust). But these waters are odd; they resonate dangerously, and indeed twice the mer-people summon thunder and storm that cause humans to drown. Loud panting accompanies the evil sea witch (Klára Jelínková), a former mermaid who has been ditched by her human lover (Petr Strnad) and has taken her revenge by stabbing him. She keeps his dead body in an acrylic glass coffin as if in a museum exhibit. On one occasion, the coffin is opened with a macabre creaking. At times the witch seems to tear her chest open, making a smacking noise that sounds like murder. Her dark powers enable the little mermaid to become human and search for the prince.
After competing with his friends to see who is best at riding the surf (accompanied by firm, pulsating, percussion-heavy music), the prince and his companions are driven by a similar musical pulse to set sail and look for a bride for the prince. By this point, the little mermaid had already traded her fish tail for legs and has been found by the prince at the beach – but walking turns out to be dreadful. Screeching violin harmonics and trickling piano accompany and reflect her struggle.
Jakub Kopechý, also Czech, was in charge of the set. He created a serene underwater world through video: floating sea stars and animal plankton; a sailboat doomed to be destroyed by the storm; a white pier and beachside hut, from which the Queen (Michaela Černá) observes her son surfing; and a lighthouse, where the prince will eventually meet and marry another girl – a princess (Kristina Kornová) – and pass over the little mermaid. I especially liked the huge, wavy fish that Kopechý assembled from various flags, as well as the sea serpent that swam although it was a living skeleton.
The Bratislava-born costume designer Alexandra Grusková dressed the mer-folk in sparkling turquoise and the humans in shades of white and pink. The little mermaid’s tall and svelte grandmother (Radka Příhodová) wore white, while the sea witch bright red. Ruffled polyps decked out in white obeyed the witch devotionally.
Jan Kodet, a Praguer who has previously worked closely with the Portuguese choreographer Rui Horta, choreographed the mer-people with vigorous wriggling and pulsating movement. They seesawed between gently floating and splashing about, kicking and shaking as if in a revue. Paddling towards the water surface was signaled by a gentle walking in place with arms stretched upwards. The little mermaid was kind, curious and so playful that I identified her as a girl rather than as a young woman. She has much fun with Seraphin (Jonáš Dolník, bringing much warmth to the role), who is cheerful, a bit quirky and the best of friends. Příhodová’s grandmother radiated authoritarian elegance, though upon learning that her granddaughter was doomed to die, she covered her face and cried. The little mermaid’s father, the sea king (Adam Zvonař), behaved formally; we barely learned anything about his relationship with his daughter. The sea witch was malicious and derisive through and through. She reminded me of an aggressive carcinoma, ferociously resisting defeat.
Šust’s prince was cheerful and full of zest. His jovial friends liked and respected him, even though they teased him about being infatuated by the little mermaid. But sensitive this prince wasn’t. If he had been, he wouldn’t have taken the bridal wreath from the happy head of the little mermaid and placed it straight onto the princess’s. Infatuation blinded him: he didn’t notice how his new love kicked her legs in the direction of the little mermaid, forcing her out of the scene. However, Kodet was unimaginative in his depiction of the little mermaid’s grief. She merely stood apart from the wedding party, looking crestfallen.
It’s somewhat uncommon for a ballet to have a stage director in the artistic team. This production had two: Martin Kukučka from Slovakia and Lukáš Trpišovský from Prague (they call their collaboration SKUTR). The duo used the Estates Theatre’s small stage well, making good use of the proscenium and of one of the theater’s front boxes. I don’t know between SKUTR or Kodet who was responsible for the final scene: the death of the little mermaid. Her upper body protruded suddenly from the backdrop high up in the air as her folk, the prince and his friends looked up to her. She was surrounded by white appliqués that symbolized the foam into which she was about to dissolve. The moment was a clumsy, hammed-up apotheosis.
Lighting, not to be forgotten, was by Daniel Tesař – a Czech, too, and (according to the program booklet) “poorly educated”. He originally worked with ČKD Tatra, a producer of train vehicles, before changing his profession. Some call him one of the best Czech lighting designers, proving that schooling and prowess don’t necessarily correlate.
|Links:||Website of the Czech National Theatre|
|Trailer “The Little Mermaid”|
|Photos:||(The photos show different casts from earlier performances.)
|1.||Tereza Podařilová (Grandmother) and Magdalena Matějková (Little Mermaid), “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Martin Divíšek|
|2.||Michal Štípa (Mer-Folk) and ensemble, “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Hana Smejkalová|
|3.||Ensemble, “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Dasa Wharton|
|4.||Alina Nanu (Little Mermaid) and Matěj Šust (Prince), “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Pavel Hejný|
|5.||Alina Nanu (Little Mermaid), “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Pavel Hejný|
|6.||Klára Jelínková (Sea Witch), “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Pavel Hejný|
|7.||Michaela Wenzelová (Sea Witch) and ensemble, “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Martin Divíšek|
|8.||Tereza Podařilová (Grandmother), Michaela Wenzelová (Sea Witch) and Petr Strnad (Lover of the Sea Witch), “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Dasa Wharton|
|9.||Klára Jelínková (Sea Witch) and ensemble, “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Pavel Hejný|
|10.||Alina Nanu (Little Mermaid) and Jonáš Dolník (Seraphin), “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Pavel Hejný|
|11.||Matěj Šust (Prince) and Alina Nanu (Little Mermaid), “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Pavel Hejný|
|12.||Aya Watanabe (Princess), Ondřej Vinklát (Prince) and Magdalena Matějková (Little Mermaid), “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Dasa Wharton|
|13.||Aya Watanabe (Princess) and ensemble, “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Dasa Wharton|
|14.||Ondřej Vinklát (Prince), Magdalena Matějková (Little Mermaid) and Aya Watanabe (Princess), “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Dasa Wharton|
|15.||Magdalena Matějková (Little Mermaid), “The Little Mermaid” by Jan Kodet, Czech National Ballet 2019 © Martin Divíšek|
|Editing:|| Jake Stepansky