Five years ago, I received a commission from the Royal Danish Ballet to write a full-length ballet with the legendary choreographer John Neumeier, based on Andersen’s The Little Mermaid for the opening of the new opera theater in Copenhagen during the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen. While working on this score I read almost all of Andersen’s creative output as well as numerous works about him. What is the secret behind Andersen’s fairy tales, so complex, with multi-levels of possible interpretations, with ambiguity under the mask of simplicity, designed for adults although internationally labeled as literature for children?
Andersen understood human nature. In his simple, poetic and metaphorical way, he could speak about the most complex, often tragic elements that are universal. We all have hopes and dreams, some realized, some broken; we all have childhood memories that are precious. We seek beauty in whichever form it may take, we all die. We dream at night and do not know where the dreams come from or if there is a message in them or even what makes us dream. We fall in love, yet we struggle to discover what love is; we may even lose our sense of identity as being in love means to rediscover and redefine ourselves. We are afraid of death as it is unknown, and of darkness as we lose certainty, and of loneliness as we search for understanding. All of this is in Andersen's tales, which remind me of Robert Schumann's piano pieces Kinderszenen – they can be appreciated by children but are intended for adults.
The Little Mermaid's story touches upon many more subjects than just unrealized love. The story of the Little Mermaid is about a being who doesn't belong. She doesn't belong to the Ocean nor to the Earth. She doesn't belong to the world of her Prince (although she may think she does), nor to the world of her father and sisters. She doesn't even belong to the humanly conceived after-death places such as heaven or hell since she doesn't have an immortal soul. Since she is no longer a regular mermaid she can't even turn into the sea-foam as do other dying mermaids, but becomes a creature of the air instead. She is constantly searching and questioning her identity. Her love is her strength as it allows her to transform.
The Mermaid’s transformation at the end of Andersen’s tale is most striking. Neither human nor mermaid, she becomes a sister of the air at last. She is like a Phoenix – dying and burning her past yet is capable through the extraordinary strength of her essence to be born anew. Her last state is neither a reward for courage nor a punishment (although she is assigned a task of purification), yet there is a sense that she may finally find peace as she is the air and she is everywhere. Only perhaps in this purifying nonexistence can she be content. Maybe this is the answer to the ambiguity that Andersen poses with his ending of the story (which is almost always changed in the later adaptations) – it is not a conclusion, but another form of time, where time becomes timeless, space – spaceless. She is nowhere yet everywhere, and her presence is a blessing of pure breath. She loses her desires, but with the loss of desire one loses identity. Thus, she dies (neither as human nor mermaid, but as herself) and transforms into another realm where she is ABOVE her love for the prince. She no longer wants him for herself, she just is, but by simply being in this state she brings goodness and light. In a way it becomes a journey from the darkness of the ocean’s depth – to the light of the air. Yet it is not a happy ending, because the Little Mermaid that we know and love is gone forever.
Almost all of Andersen’s short stories would make perfect theater productions: ballets or operas. I especially love his Snow Queen with its strikingly beautiful images, deep wisdom and complex games with time. Andersen suggests that the human inability to grasp the concept of eternity is man's blessing. In this story a little boy, kidnapped by the snow queen, slowly loses his humanity. Yet he can't solve a riddle with the answer of "eternity" and that is what saves him, as it allows time for the little girl, who is traveling the world in search of him, to stop his heart from becoming ice-cold by melting the ice with her tears. There is a striking, almost painful purity in Andersen's writings. The boy and the girl in this story at one moment realize that they are not little children any longer, that they are grown-ups, yet they remain children in their hearts. There is a certain vulnerable fragility in his writing as if his soul is bared, and one wants to put one’s arms around him to protect this pure sensitivity. And yet his characters are incredibly courageous and strong. Courage and loyalty are important features in most of his stories.
What identifies a nation is its poets. Yet, as with any great poet, Andersen became an international figure. I have read several biographies of his life and times, including his own novel "The Fairy Tale of My Life". What is curious is that throughout his life, Andersen was composing his own biography, creating a perfect fairy-tale of his life, often rather different from its tragic and, at times, cruel reality. His real self can be glimpsed through his tales: he IS the Little Mermaid who outgrows her surroundings and is misunderstood by those around, he IS a steadfast soldier who keeps his courage and doesn't give up, he IS a poor, dreaming girl with a box of matches, capable of a wondrous imagination that lulls her into the forever blissful sleep of death, away from cold and hunger.
One of the peculiar qualities of writing theater music is that you need to find a balance between achieving what you intend to create artistically and make it work organically together with the dramatic requirements of the theater. If music becomes a servant of the dance as has happened with many 19th century ballets then there is a big problem. The other difficulty is the length. With The Little Mermaid we have three full acts, and to sustain the best quality within the span of an almost three-hour-long production, where the overall architecture needs to hold the structure together, was my highest priority and a challenge.
Neither the music nor the choreography of the ballet suggests the Danish culture of Andersen's time as this would not only be false but it would artificially cage him into a time which he has outgrown. At the same time, it was very important for me, in order to understand Andersen, to gather as much information about Danish culture and his life as I could. John Neumeier and I even studied the score written for one of the Andersen plays called "Agnete og Havmanden" (Agnete und der Meermann) with the music of Neils Gade, which was staged (to complete fiasco) shortly before Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid.
In Andersen’s tale, Little Mermaid has a most beautiful voice. Of course in the ballet, I could not use a real singer. In the orchestration, I was searching for an instrument that could represent the voice of the Mermaid and would be close to a human voice, yet also have an other-worldliness, a transcendental haunting quality. I found the timbre I was searching for in the sound of the theremin, the very first electronic instrument, created in the 1920’s by Leo Theremin. The instrument is incredibly expressive - think of a mixture between cello and flute to have an idea of its sound. Also, there is something very mysterious in this instrument, as it is played by moving hands in the air, no strings attached, no keyboards. The instrument itself is an electromagnetic field, created by its antenna. There is something magical about creating the sounds from emptiness. The instrument also is an outsider of the standard orchestra just like Little Mermaid is an outsider of her surroundings, and to represent a creature who becomes a spirit of air the theremin seemed most appropriate. For Mermaid’s human nature I have chosen a solo violin. Thus, there is a duality between violin and theremin, representing the dual nature of this chimera. The ballet’s orchestration is for the full symphony orchestra and is highly multilayered, presenting different levels, similar to the ocean’s complex co-existence of different worlds.
The ballet “Little Mermaid’ will receive its American premiere by the San Francisco Ballet on March 20th, 2010. The last performance of the San Francisco Ballet on March 28th will mark the 70th performance of this ballet world-wide since its premiere at the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen in 2005.