Mary Brennan

LONG before film-maker Guillermo del Toro hooked various awards – including recent Oscars – for The Shape of Water, the world’s storytellers had been conjuring up strange tales of underwater creatures who seemed to be half-human and yet half-fish. Sometimes the folklore would veer towards the perils associated with sea-faring – mermaids were reckoned to be harbingers of storms, shipwrecks, drownings. Other mythologies offered a more benevolent image, where a close encounter with this (inevitably beautiful) being from the deep would bring good fortune, the granting of wishes, even true love.

“I think it’s the appeal of ‘otherness’ that fascinates us even now,” says David Nixon, artistic director of Northern Ballet and the choreographer of their highly successful production of The Little Mermaid. Premiered only last September, the two-act work – featuring a newly commissioned score by Sally Beamish – will come on-stage at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, next Thursday, and run there until Saturday.

It wasn’t ‘otherness’ that drew Nixon to the The Little Mermaid, however: it was necessity and a tight deadline. “We needed a new ballet for the Autumn season,” he laughs. “It was as simple as that. We needed a family-friendly, story-telling ballet – and I had a week to come up with an idea. I still don’t know why I said The Little Mermaid. I’d never seen the Disney animation, I had a vague recollection of a Danny Kaye film about Hans Christian Andersen where there was a ballet – I wasn’t sure, but I thought it was about the Little Mermaid... Meanwhile other people in the company were responding enthusiastically – here was a popular story that would resonate with a lot of people, and let’s be honest: that’s usually good news for the box office!”

Nixon still hasn’t seen the Disney version of Andersen’s fairytale. “I didn’t want to be influenced by it in any way. Instead, I went back to Hans Christian Andersen’s original story. I’d been thinking ‘okay -mermaid... light, under-water, floaty’ and that was going to be a challenge in itself. But as I read it, and re-read it, I realised that it had all kinds of darker layers to it. I kept discovering an unexpected complexity to it – issues that tie into how we look at ‘difference’, and also disability. I became aware of how the Prince treats the mermaid almost like a child because she can’t speak – he doesn’t know she’s sacrificed her voice to be with him. Or that she’s in excruciating pain when she has to walk, let alone dance. So then the challenge was how to keep faith with Andersen’s story, which doesn’t have the usual ‘happy-ever-after’ fairytale ending, while at the same time creating a ballet that would feel right for a family audience. Adults will, I think, understand the ways in which Andersen, and our ballet, explores the nature of love – but, for children, there is an element of magic that we’ve made sure is there in the mermaid’s wonderful underwater world.”

Starting from scratch, and in a timeframe that was already crammed with other projects – Northern Ballet (NB) premiered two other full-length ballets last year, as well as taking part in the Royal Opera House’s National Celebration of Kenneth MacMillan – meant Nixon opting to design the costumes as well. He had a good idea of how he wanted it to look, with Act One set in an enchanting aquatic realm that would contrast, quite dramatically, with the on-shore lands that the Mermaid finds when she follows her heart in Act Two. But what about the music? Rather than piece something together – maybe a bit of Debussy here, a surge of Mendelssohn, there – Nixon decided to commission a new score. And, given Northern Ballet’s belief in gender equality, he was keen that – for the first time in their history – they should ask a woman to compose it.

This is where luck came racing to NB’s side. Sally Beamish had recently worked on The Tempest for Birmingham Royal Ballet. One of Nixon’s creative team had seen, and heard, that production and came back to NB’s headquarters in Leeds on a positive high. Could Sally Beamish find the time? Would Sally Beamish want to do it? Hurrah! after watching the company perform (in Nixon’s Beauty and the Beast) and then having a post-show chat about Mermaid themes, Sally Beamish said ‘yes’.

Part of the attraction, she says, lay in “the folk resonances that lie behind the tale, which is an original creation, but has clear roots in the folklore of Scandinavia and Scotland – Scottish and Irish folk music have always been an important influence for me. For The Little Mermaid, I wanted to reference Nordic mythical sea creatures in the score. The selkie tales from Orkney, kelpies – terrifying water horses – and the idea of the sea lord (Lyr) in Celtic mythology. David and I decided to look at Celtic names for our characters, and all the names have meanings – for instance Marilla, the little mermaid herself, means 'shining sea'.”

If inspirations were coming thick and fast for both of them, time was in seriously short supply. Nixon agreed to Beamish bringing in some pieces she’d composed earlier. “I’d actually listened to them,” he says, “and knew that they would work in the ballet. Besides, although I’d never met Sally before Mermaid, I trusted her.” So much so that he did something he’d never done before.

“For the first time ever, I choreographed two solos without any music – I put them on video and sent them to Sally, in hopes that she’d be able to work with them. And she did. The music arrived in the studio, as if we’d spent time there together, going over it step by step.”

Meanwhile, Northern Ballet’s own Sinfonia were rising to the challenges of Beamish’s music, her favourite folk-lorique strands among them. She explains these were a starting point for the whole score. “At its centre is the concerto Seavaigers for Scottish fiddle and harp, which I have reinvented with the distinctive scoring of the Northern Ballet Sinfonia who will perform live at every show. The result is a score which has melody at its core, and a strong flavour of fiddles, pipes, accordion and drums, recreated by the orchestra.”

For Nixon, this Celtic element speaks not just to his overview of The Little Mermaid, but to his heart – like many Canadians he has Scottish antecedents. Is this why he’s dressed the mainland men in kilts? If you look back at the other ballets he’s designed, you’ll see that – as a dancer himself – he understands the value of a costume that frees the dancer to move without hindrance. That said, a mermaid isn’t a mermaid without a tail... When he did Peter Pan for Northern Ballet, he went the whole fin’n’flipper with the mermaids’ costumes.

“That was fine,” he says, “because they were only on for a couple of minutes. Here, our little Mermaid is on-stage for 40 minutes, bourree-ing about: a full-length tail just wasn’t practical – so we’ve compromised, given the illusion of a tail but tried to make sure it doesn’t trip her up. In fact it’s the men who suffer. The sequin-scales are a bit rough and scratchy, so when they have to lift the mermaid their arms and shoulders get a bit shredded.”

For soloist Abigail Prudames, who created the lead role of Marilla in The Little Mermaid, that tail did, initially take a bit of getting used to. She explains: “I had to learn how the tail moves when it’s attached to me and how much force it needs to be moved, as well as how to make it look most natural. Now it’s just part and parcel of being Marilla. At the beginning of the creation process the tail and I weren’t friends, but now it’s safe to say I feel lost without it on!”

And as she says that, she is in a way encapsulating the fate that befalls the little Mermaid when she bargains away her tail – and her singing voice – for the legs she hopes with make her human.

For Nixon this forlorn hope is what makes the story, and the ballet, so much more than an escapist fantasia of foamy waves and sea spray. “She tries, goes to extremes for love – but she doesn’t get her heart’s desire. In our society, not getting what we want out of life is not our idea of a happy ending – but what if, regardless of what it costs you, you enable someone you love to get what they want... Maybe that’s the ‘happy-ever-after’ ending that The Little Mermaid brings on-stage.”

Northern Ballet perform The Little Mermaid at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh from Thursday March 22 to Saturday March 24. See