Interview with Northern Ballet’s The Little Mermaid choreographer – David Nixon.

David Nixon

Artistic Director of Northern Ballet

Choreographer, Director and Costume Designer for The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid is your first ballet since Cinderella in 2013 – why did you choose this story?
The Little Mermaid is a popular story that resonates with a lot of people. I also think the water element of the story is very danceable in people’s minds; and the little mermaid herself dances in the story, so there is a lot of movement there already.

Why did you choose the original Hans Christian Andersen story? Did you look at other sources during your research?
I always go back to the source material. During my research I did watch some opera adaptations of The Little Mermaid and the 1975 Japanese anime film that came before the Disney version.

I didn’t watch the Disney version because I didn’t want to be influenced by it. Hans Christian Andersen’s story is the original and I like to be as true to the core of something as possible, so the ballet is really just drawn from his story. Disney for me is wonderful yet in certain ways it misrepresents the fairytales it adapts. I think that with The Little Mermaid there is a reason that it is not a ‘happily ever after’ story.

Why are so many classic fairytales adapted for ballet?
I think ballet has historically been perceived as a fantasy art form – look at Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, La Sylphide, Giselle… they’re all very romantic and fairytale-like ballets. These classic ballets also came out of an era where people read a lot of fairytales. Ballet didn’t really deal with ‘real’ stories until the last century.

Fairytales are great when you’re looking at creating a ballet for the whole family to come to and enjoy, because families usually share these stories which gives you a common ground with the audience.

How do the costumes and the set create the underwater world of The Little Mermaid?
The sets are made up of plastic and mirror to create a phenomenal water look. It’s quite a contemporary look because the ballet isn’t set in real concrete worlds. It’s quite imaginative.

The costumes, particularly those of the human world, have a Celtic element to them, in keeping with Sally Beamish’s Celtic-inspired score.

What does the little mermaid look like?
We wanted our little mermaid, Marilla, to have a slightly alien look when she becomes a “human” – because from my perspective she’s never a true human. I think it’s a bit of an odd idea that mermaids are just humans with a tail
it’s a fish! Even when Marilla loses her tail and becomes a woman she’s not human.

She also can’t speak which makes her even more of a ‘creature’ rather than a human to the people around her – a beautiful creature, something exotic that moves in a different way but still kind of alien.

Marilla and her sisters do have tails and they dance beautifully with it – you will have to come to see the ballet to find out how.

How did you come across Sally Beamish and her work?
When we were looking for a composer for The Little Mermaid, Sally had actually just written the music for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Tempest. My Music Director John Pryce-Jones went to see it and he said he thought that she would be a very good person write the music for The Little Mermaid. Sally’s score has a hint of Scottish themes reflecting the Celtic elements of the story that we have brought out in our ballet.

What do you think the overall message of the story of The Little Mermaid is, if there is one?
It’s a story about dreams and aspirations, as well as naivety. Marilla thinks that because she loves somebody they will love her back. She is struck by the Prince right away and sacrifices so much to become a woman, naively thinking that by doing so they will be together. It is a story about absolute love.

When he marries someone else, although heartbroken she is selfless – she is presented with the opportunity to go back to the water world, but by doing a deed that would destroy the one person that she has felt completely committed to. She makes the choice not to do that.

That’s what I think is the lesson of the story – there are choices in life that do mean that we don’t get what we want, but they are the right choices morally.

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