REVIEW: Ballet Spartanburg Hails a SwimSational ‘Little Mermaid’

Artistic Director Carlos Agudelo and the Jesters in "The Litttle Mermaid." Photo courtesy of Ballet Spartanburg and Kim Cantrell Inabinet
Artistic Director Carlos Agudelo and the Jesters in “The Litttle Mermaid.” Photo courtesy of Ballet Spartanburg and Kim Cantrell Inabinet

BY SANDY STAGGS
ARTS CRITIC

Sailing into its 50th anniversary season, Ballet Spartanburg presented the first of five original ballets last night with “The Little Mermaid.”

But don’t expect the Disney version of this tale of the mermaid who longs to be human. As hard as it to fathom, there was a “Little Mermaid” almost a century and a half before Ariel became a bona fide trademark.  This version is based on the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and there is no singing Flounder, Scuttle the Seagull, “Under the Sea” or “Part of Your World,”  “The Little Mermaid” will nonetheless delight children and adults alike.

Analay Saiz dances the titular fishy role. When we first see her, she is swimming on the surface for the very first time, hoisted in the air by three dancing waves who herald her as she serenely basks in the sunlight and makes graceful dives and back strokes with a delicate arch of her back.

We are privy to the world under the sea embodied by ballet students: a coterie of dancing sea horses (Isabel Garcia and Sophie Webb), a starfish (Camille Fendley), an anemone (Dylan Brandemuehl), a sea turtle (Kensley Brandemuehl), eels (Katie Blackwood, Catherine Chapman, Maria Cochran and Aurelia Fendley) and more.

In one of the most technically-innovative scenes in the ballet, The Mermaid falls in love with a young Prince (guest soloist Sam Chester) whom she rescues after his boat sinks. She longs to be human and gain immortality.

Her three sisters (company members Elizabeth Dennen, Megan Loman and Nichola Montt in the first of multiple roles) and her father the King (company dancer Will Robichaud on opening night dressed as Poseidon), fiercely object. This segment leaves an indelible impression and furthers the narrative with dramatic with sweeping gestures to signify the worlds above and below the water’s surface. And Robichaud’s authority as reigning leader is demonstrated in bold choreography as he pounds on the sea floor.

After drinking a potion given to her by the Witch (Montt on opening night), the Mermaid loses her tail. Miss Saiz is particularly effective here as she writhes in pain and attempts to walk on her legs for the first time.

The Prince takes her to his castle and of course there is a royal ball with beautiful dancing by the Flower Maidens, The Prince and his officers (John Roche and Luke Umphlett) and the cutest little band of Jesters you ever did see, danced by Caroline Manke and Elizabeth Skinner and 14 of the youngest students in the studio (three to six years old).

One notable difference in this version from Disney’s incarnation, is that the Mermaid has a rival: The Fiancee (also danced by Dennen), who is presented by The Queen (Catherine Chapman) in a brief but striking cameo as she slowly saunters across the stage. This segment is also one he highlights of the ballet as the Prince is instantly in awe of the Fiancee and the Mermaid inserts herself between them in a three way tug-of-war.

As the Mermaid, Saiz is splendidly graceful and beautiful; she beckons the audience for adoration and empathy with just her body, without uttering a single word, a power that Ariel possesses in the animated film musical.

Chester, rather tall for a dancer, is a handsome, regal Prince, whose masculine poise and supreme technique sells this role.

The choreography was crafted by Artistic Director Carlos Agudelo with additional choreography by the company’s Principal Lona Gomez. The dancing is very traditional and audience-friendly and effectively compliments the fairy tale.

“The Little Mermaid” is set to the melodies of Rossini, Haydn, Francaix and the American Romantic Ives, along with a heavy infusion of Russian composers Alexander Borodin, Alexander Scriabin, Anton Arensky and P.I. Tchaikovsky. The Russian influence, particularly with the exquisite ballroom sets and royal costumes, and portend the early scenes in “The Nutcracker,” which the company will produce next on Dec. 9-11 at Twichell Auditorium.

Both on loan from the Charlotte Ballet, the scenery is sublime and the costumes  are superbly effervescent and illuminating. And Joseph Walls’ lighting scheme sizzles especially in the underwater scenes, as the sun’s reflection ripples in the waves.

“The Little Mermaid “continues Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. at Chapman Cultural Center, 200 East Saint John St. in Spartanburg. Call (864) 542-2787 or visit chapmanculturalcenter.org.

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