Onstage Aerial Majesty

The Little Mermaid is a melding of the creative talents of IPB Artistic Director Victoria Koenig, Co-Director Kevin Frank Myers, Choreographers Daniel Kirk and Eric Skinner, Scenic Designer Nancy Seruto, Costume Designer Craig Sheppard and Jeanne Nolden, and Sound Designer Scott Frasier, and basically, it all started on the trapeze.

As dancers based in Portland, Kirk and Skinner had been working together on the trapeze since 1996. "We initially did it more for fun," Kirk recalls. "We'd go in, put on some music, experimented on two trapezes, and came up with vocabulary to string together some pieces. We decided it might be entertaining for people to watch, so we created a show and did it out of the Portland shipyards. It was an adventure for the audience to get out there and come see us perform in the round. They really enjoyed it; and we realized we had something interesting."

How did The Little Mermaid come out of this? "We did two of our trapeze pieces in a repertory program for the IPB," Kirk says. "Then Vicky and Kevin approached us about collaborating on a project they had in mind--to do a production of The Little Mermaid. They saw how our aerial trapeze work would blend perfectly into creating an underwater feeling. So we went forward with the project, and it became pretty much our work. Naturally, we benefited from a lot of collaborations. Vicky really helped in choosing music, I wrote the libretto [story line] and Nancy Seruto did a beautiful job with the sets. A lot people put their talents into it."

Creating A Colorful New World
To create the libretto, "I read the Hans Christian Andersen tale, and I saw the Disney movie," Kirk notes. "I wanted to create something in the middle--not as dark as Andersen wanted it to be, but at the same time I didn't touch anything that Disney did. I came up with an original concept for the libretto from there, then I started layering the dances, especially that first scene, which came pretty easily."

The spectacular opening scene has drawn the unabashed praise of critics and audiences alike. "Conceptually, the scene came to me really quickly, but executing and choreographing it took a little bit of time," Kirk says. "There were so many layers to create. Eric and I weren't used to working with such a big group. Working with 22 people, instead of just two at a time, creates a whole different dynamic. Everyone wants to get to their part, and we had to weave all their individual roles into a whole.

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© E.Y.Yanagi 2010

I had a really clear idea right off the bat about having umbrella jellyfish; it was something I had been thinking of before we even got involved in this project," he continues. "I had a different idea for the school of fish, which would've worked well, but when I explained it to Vicky, she saw it differently and created a different prop for them. We ended up going with her idea for the schools of fish. The sea horses were the product of collaboration between Craig Shepherd, the Costume Designer, Eric and myself. He sketched and designed beautiful sparkly seahorses; he wanted something to be used on the hands, to make them go up and down, and to make carousel circles."

Getting In The Swing
Another unique highlight of The Little Mermaid is the shipwreck scene, where the Little Mermaid saves The Young Prince from drowning. To get the dancers acclimated to working in the air, as it were, Daniel Kirk came to the IPB Studios to do an aerial workshop to show the dancers how they could move on what would become slings instead of trapezes. "They translated very quickly to the aerial apparatus, but it wasn't easy," he says. "A ballet dancer concentrates so much on his or her feet and legs, and not so much on upper body strength. So while we got them up there right away, it was a slower process for them to assert control of the apparatus."

"The piece where the slings are used is the drowning pas de deux," Kirk explains. "It takes a lot of upper body strength to know where to throw your weight around, and control the spin of ropes."

Getting Better With Age
While this is the sixth year for the Inland Pacific Ballet's The Little Mermaid, Kirk still wants to improve the production. "I don't see changing the libretto at all or breaking it up into two acts," he says. "The original concept was to not have it just be a children's ballet. I wanted it to be challenging for ballet dancers and audiences of all ages. I wanted to create something more along the lines of Romeo & Juliet--part of ballet repertory that adults would want to see, too. So we created this with two different minds, one to entertain young people with a short attention span, and the other to create something sophisticated and beautiful for our adult audience.

"There is a little bit of tinkering we'd still like to do, but since Eric and I are often touring with another company, we can only be in Southern California for short periods of time to work on details," Kirk adds."

To Read The Little Mermaid Libretto (click here)