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This isn't your Disney Little Mermaid

"The Little Mermaid from San Francisco Ballet" airs Friday, Dec. 16, at 9 p.m. (check local listings) on PBS's "Great Performances." It is currently available on DVD, and will also appear on PBS On Demand.

Whenever I say, "Hans Christian Andersen," in my mind I can hear the voice of Danny Kaye singing out the name of the famous Dane. Kaye played the title role in 1952 musical film, "Hans Christian Andersen. " For another generation, the Little Mermaid is part of a Disney franchise beginning with the 1989 animated feature "The Little Mermaid." Now comes a ballet, recorded for PBS.

Hamburg Ballet director John Neumeier's "The Little Mermaid" is a visually rich, emotionally complex ballet that takes the famous Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale from its Hollywood interpretations back to its origins. This is a "don't miss" production.

In the original story, the Little Mermaid saves and falls in love with a prince. She makes a bargain with a witch, giving up her beautiful voice in order to have legs. The prince likes her, but doesn't love her and marries another. Given the choice of killing the prince or dying herself, the Little Mermaid dies, but is resurrected in another dimension.

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How can you have a franchise if the Little Mermaid dies? You can't, of course. In the Disney feature, "The Little Mermaid," Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson), doesn't die, and instead, does find love with her prince, Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes). Roger Ebert gave the movie four stars, and called it "a jolly and inventive animated fantasy" that restored the magic associated with animated Disney features from an earlier era. The Academy voters gave the film two Oscars--one to Alan Menken for Best Music, Original Score and another to Menken and Howard Ashman (lyrics) for Best Music, Original Song ("Under the Sea")

The movie was rated G and definitely okay for little children. It wouldn't be Disney otherwise. Sure, there's the terror of the sea hag Ursula (Pat Carroll), but we know there's a happy ending in store. Just listen to the music.

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The Danny Kaye movie, "Hans Christian Andersen" (1952), is also a musical, and although it is hardly a biography it captures some of the angst that runs through so many of Andersen's fairy tales. "This is not the story of his life, but a fairy tale about the great spinner of fairy tales," an opening title cautions. Directed by Hungarian-born Charles Vidor ("Gilda," "Farewell to Arms"), the film features music by Frank Loesser ("Guys and Dolls" and the Oscar-winning song, "Baby, It's Cold Outside"). Nominated for six Academy Awards, the movie is available in an edited version (about 15 minutes cut) on Hulu for free, and Netflix has the full version.

In the movie, Andersen is a cobbler who falls in love with a temperamental prima ballerina, Doro (Zizi Jeanmaire). Doro is directed by her husband, Niels (Farley Granger), but their relationship isn't always lovey-dovey. Andersen witnesses the couple's sometimes abusive dynamic and feels Doro's effusive thanks for his work on her shoes signifies her romantic interest in him. That night, he writes "The Little Mermaid" for her and the story accidentally falls into her hands. A few months later, she and her husband make it into a ballet.

Jeanmaire was a real ballet dancer who met her future husband Roland Petit at the Paris Opera Ballet. In the movie, when Jeanmaire ("Anything Goes," "Folies-Bergere") dances "The Little Mermaid," it's Petit, the choreographer and her husband, who plays her prince. Wires help the prettily posed Prince and Mermaid swim off of the stage floor.

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Petit's brief ballet, much like the Disney animation feature, emphasizes the human-like aspects of the mermaids, yet in this new ballet production, choreographer Neumeier looks at the alien aspects of the two different worlds: land versus sea.

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The Milwaukee-born Neumeier trained in Copenhagen and London and began his career at the Stuttgart Ballet. In 1969, he became the director of the Frankfurt Ballet and four years later, he became the director and chief choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet. He has created over 100 ballets for his own company. In 2005, the Royal Danish Ballet commissioned Neumeier to create a ballet to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth. The Hamburg Ballet premiered its version in 2007.

The San Francisco Ballet is America's oldest professional ballet company and one of the three largest ballet companies in the U. S. It was given the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for "Outstanding Achievement in Dance" in 2005 and in 2006, it was the first non-European company voted "Company of the Year by "Dance Europe" magazine readers. Neumeier gave the company permission to present the March 2010 American premiere of his "The Little Mermaid" ballet.

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Unlike the Disney version, Andersen's original story is poetic and deeply tragic, and, in many ways echoes Andersen's sense of abandonment in his search for love. For this reason, Neumeier brings Andersen into the story by beginning with a man, the Poet (Lloyd Riggins), dressed in black with a tall top hat writing the first lines of the story. The Poet is interrupted by a laughing bride (Sarah van Patten as the Princess), who runs past him. We immediately sense that the Poet doesn't celebrate this wedding as do the bridesmaids. Against the red bridesmaids dresses, he seems particularly somber. The bride's long veil covers the Poet's face like a funeral shroud. When the groom (Tiit Helimets as the Prince) enters, we see Poet's attention spark.

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In real life, Andersen did fall in love with men and women (notably Swedish opera soprano Jenny Lind), and none returned his love. But here, nothing sexual is insinuated. If not for Neumeier's own explanations before the ballet begins or after the intermission, you might just feel the Poet is filled with extreme envy. Oh, to be young, beautiful and rich. This isn't to say that the dancer, Lloyd Riggins, who plays the Poet, isn't good looking. Rather he moves awkwardly and is dressed differently than the rest of the crowd--out of step, out of fashion and out of luck in love.

From the Poet's broken heart, the tale of the Little Mermaid is born. But unlike the ungainly Poet (who in real life was homely), the mermaid is beautiful and graceful. As the mermaid, dancer Yuan Yuan Tan uses her arms to simulate the motion of the waves.

Neumeier dresses the denizens of the ocean in hakama, Japanese split pants. Although his inspiration is the classic Japanese noh theater, these hakama are long and fluid, instead of crisply lined and pressed. Kurogi (mostly male dancers dressed in black who are "unseen" special effects) lift and pass the mermaids to each other to simulate the fluid movements of swimming.

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As the sea witch, Davit Karapetyan appears in kabuki-like makeup and clad in a midriff-baring black top and dark hakama. Yet in no way do his movements recall Japanese theater and this isn't an allusion to the foreignness of Occident versus Orient or another tragic love story of an exotic woman dumped when her man returns to his country like Madame Butterfly. Instead, this is the poignant story of misplaced love, a superficial puppy-love that leads the Little Mermaid to give up her world, her people and her identity.

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Stripped of her fins, the mermaid is white ("nude") and pale in a simple leotard. Her movements are so painfully awkward, she ends up spending some of her first moments on land in a modern wheelchair. In another segment, the Little Mermaid is enclosed in an open white box and through her movements, the extreme limitations of living in rooms as compared to the expansive sea is expressed. How could she not feel claustrophobia?

And how could one expect a prince to choose a mute disabled girl over a woman who moves confidently on earth? Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach negotiates many different moods in her musical compositions. Because of the Mermaid's suffering and the clash between the culture of earth and that of water, there's often dissonance. This isn't a cheery tale, after all. But there is love, of course. Consider the tango-esque first dance between newlyweds that suggests a mature passion and the rightness of the Prince's choice.

There is some debate as to whether this ballet is fit for children.

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Neumeier states in his introduction that this ballet is meant to touch "all members of the audience, of whatever age." And while "The Little Mermaid" is about a "love that is so strong that it can overcome boundaries, that it can transport her to new worlds," it is also a self-destructive love that it puts the Mermaid in physical and emotional pain. And despite her sacrifices and suffering, her love is not returned in kind. That's a harsh life lesson, but surely a practical one. Many fairy tales work as cautionary tales, and in a time when divorce is high and the country is at war, one can guess that children already know that not everything ends happily ever after.

While some reviewers of the stage production found it too visually busy, Thomas Grimm's direction for the TV production gives focus, and allows us to imagine Yuan Yuan Tan swimming.

You can't live life without heartbreak so while I don't think there's anything wrong with allowing small children to view this production, you might make a judgment call for your individual case. For people who dream of being mermaids or mermen to swim effortlessly through the wonders of the ocean, for those who love to dance, this is a gorgeous, intelligent ballet adaptation of the fairy tale.

Watch PBS Arts from San Francisco: Great Performances on PBS. See more from THE ARTS.

Watch Interview with The Mermaid on PBS. See more from GREAT PERFORMANCES.

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Jana J. Monji is a Los Angeles freelance writer for the arts who almost always would rather be dancing Argentine tango or East Coast swing than sitting down. She has written for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly and currently writes for the Pasadena Weekly and Examiner.com on theater, art, dance. To combat the Los Angeles ailment of road rage, she takes a hammer and torch to metal to make jewelry.

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