I am currently in San Francisco, where the San Francisco Ballet is preparing the premiere of my ballet The Little Mermaid. Today was my first rehearsal with the orchestra and tomorrow will be the first rehearsal with the dancers and the orchestra.
The ballet was originally written for and commissioned by the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen for the anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen and opening of their new opera theater in 2005 (this ballet was the first ballet production done in this new theater).
The following year the Hamburg Ballet commissioned me a revised version of this work, premiered in 2007 and since then it became part of their repertoire. The last performance of the San Francisco ballet on March 28th will mark the 70th performance of this ballet world-wide since its original creation in 2005.
When John Neumeier sent me the first draft of the libretto in 2004 he added in the letter, which accompanied it, that I should use this libretto very freely -- as a source for inspiration and as a suggestion for the structure -- so that in return the music could inspire the choreography and vice-versa. During the work on the ballet we met many times in New York, Hamburg, Baden-Baden and Copenhagen - and sometimes talked for hours on the telephone, an ocean across from each other, so there was always a mental link between us. Yet we also spent long stretches of time working separately and sometimes our visions of the Mermaid and her world would slightly depart from each other and it would take some effort to adjust each other's perspective. In some ways it is like two parents raising a child, or raising a Mermaid in this case. In fact the work went through so much transformation, as we went along, that the original libretto that I received from John bares little resemblance to the final work.
Neither the music nor the choreography of The Little Mermaid 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.
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.
In some ways our Little Mermaid is a very intimate work. It is about personal transformation and about relationship between a creator (Andersen) and his creation (Mermaid). A lot of the material is written as chamber music. Yet, it is also a larger than life story of love, death, personal identity, time and timelessness. It deals in three levels - under the ocean (Mermaid's world), on earth (human world) and above earth (after-world), and for this the large canvas - full orchestra is needed. Just the ocean with its multiple depths, layers, colors, shifting movements requires a large mural and a full pallet to work with.
In Andersen's tale Mermaid has a most beautiful haunting voice. I was searching for a very special sound. I even thought of using a singer, but it did not feel right as it was too real, too hot-bloodedly human. I needed the voice from the dreams, haunting, fragile and powerful at the same time, strange and expressive. Mermaids in different world's tales can lure the sailors and cause ship-racks, because when men would hear their singing time itself would stop to listen and one could completely loose oneself and die for their magical voices. 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 the solo 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.