Joffrey Ballet mounts an ambitious, melancholy reimagining of The Little Mermaid


Courtesy of Joffery Ballet

Gayeon Jung stars as the Mermaid in Joffery Ballet’s adaptation of “The Little Mermaid,” choreographed by John Neumeier.

Cementing its prevalence in mainstream pop culture with Disney’s wildly successful animated adaptation, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” is without question one of the most beloved fairy tales in the expansive canon. With films, both live action and animated, Broadway musical adaptations and operas, the latest adaptation of Andersen’s fairy tale takes the titular mermaid to the stage and swaps her fins for pointe shoes. Joffrey Ballet’s “The Little Mermaid” is an ambitious, bold reimagining of a familiar story. Though its pacing and narrative may flounder, the sheer creative ingenuity and an enrapturing performance from Gayeon Jung make “The Little Mermaid” an unmissable entry in Joffrey’s expansive repertoire.

Choreographed by John Neumeier and featuring an original score from Lera Auerbach, “The Little Mermaid” opens on an idealistic young poet (Xavier Núñez) heartbroken at the memory of his unrequited love Edvard (Hyuma Kusawa) marrying a woman named Henriette (Amanda Assucena). His longing is anthropomorphized at the bottom of the ocean in the form of an innocent young mermaid (Jung) who saves the life of a handsome human prince. Head over fins in love, the mermaid goes to a Sea Witch (Edson Barbosa) and trades her tail for a pair of legs, only to find out the Prince has found a human lover.

Despite the fact that there were countless families with small children eager to experience the delightfully sanitized version of the story Disney made famous, this is a decidedly darker adaptation whose scenic design and costuming are full of mid-century aesthetics and minimalistic sets as opposed to colorful underwater kingdoms. The story’s tone, too, is pervasively and consistently one of tragedy and heartbreak. Though both protagonists may start out starry-eyed, the ballet is very deliberate and externalizes how much they suffer over the course of the show.

While they suffer, they suffer beautifully. Particularly, Gayeon Jung as the eponymous young mermaid makes for a stunning, mesmerizing figure, whose effortless grace and stunningly expressive facials make you forget she has not spoken a word the entire show. Jung’s Mermaid is a curious, almost childlike one — especially once she’s gotten her “legs” (she begins the show barefoot, and transitions to pointe after the Sea Witch’s transformation), she teeters around, falling up and down from pointe as she struggles to acclimate to her new body.

It is incredibly endearing to watch her stumble, wide-eyed around the stage after the Prince and his new bride — the sequence in which the mermaid serves as one of the bridesmaids in their wedding is particularly heartbreaking and exemplifies the affecting dichotomy of charm and sorrow. However, as wonderful as she is in the ballet’s lighter moments, it is the act two finale — as is commonly the case with Joffrey’s productions — that truly showcase her expansive emotional range, as the little mermaid finally succumbs to the torture of living among humans and, distraught, tears off her pointe shoes onstage. 

Every element of the mermaid herself — from Jung’s physicality to the awkwardly angled choreography alternating between flexed and pointed feet, to the simple yet effective makeup design — is elegantly and effectively executed. This is a fully realized understanding of what makes this nameless young mermaid such a relatable character in Andersen’s original story: her open heartedness and desperation for love is devastating in its relatability.

Somewhat frustratingly, though, the writing of the ballet seems to lack confidence in the Mermaid’s ability to carry the story on her own and inserts the character of The Poet as a sort of parallel and framing device. The Poet spends almost the entirety of the show onstage, observing and often literally mirroring the Mermaid’s movements — she is, after all, a figment of his imagination that personifies his feelings of loneliness and yearning.

While it is certainly an interesting, ambitious choice to use the Mermaid’s story as a metaphor for unrequited queer love and identity, The Poet often feels tertiary when the Mermaid herself is such an affecting character. Núñez gives a wholehearted performance, certainly, but the creative choice to have him mimic much of her choreography and simply observe from the outside in makes him feel like a tertiary player.

Still, artistic director Ashley Wheather’s willingness to take creative risks yields one of the most memorable, emotional versions of the familiar tale yet, especially once the story moves above the water. Though floppy sun hats, column gowns, and sailor’s uniforms straight out of “Anything Goes” are not quite what most would expect from a take on “The Little Mermaid,” Joffrey’s gutsy reimagining is undeniably triumphant.