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San Francisco Ballet's Yuan Yuan Tan

San Francisco Ballet: The Little Mermaid

San Francisco Ballet—the oldest professional ballet company in America—received choreographer/director John Neumeier's rare permission to present the American premiere of The Little Mermaid in March 2010. Audience response was ecstatic, and critics hailed it as "mesmerizing" and "moving."

This ballet—as much theater as it is dance—takes the performers and the audience into deep emotional terrain. The Great Performances production premieres on public television stations across the country on December 16, 2011.

San Francisco Ballet prima ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan spoke to KQED about her experience as the Mermaid.

I want to talk to you about The Little Mermaid, but first, I have to ask what you're rehearsing now.
George Balanchine's Scotch Symphony. [premieres April 2012] It is a very classical ballet from Balanchine—I'm wearing a romantic tutu.

Which is so different from The Little Mermaid! I found The Little Mermaid to be an emotionally powerful ballet to watch. And very theatrical.
It is very theatrical. And as a dancer it's a lot to take in, digest, and present. I think any performer will appreciate this piece.

Is this kind of ballet something you enjoy?
Yes. I think at this stage in my career I prefer to do a story ballet. For me as an artist it shows my range. I am more mature now; I can't imagine doing it 15 years ago. For me The Little Mermaid is a lifetime achievement. A milestone in my career. I was very glad to be filmed in the role.

One thing that's so wonderful about watching the ballet on television is that you're able to really see the dancers up close. You see all their facial expressions and movements.
Even in the front row of the Opera House you won't see so much. You are seeing everything. I can't wait to watch it myself.

So were you aware of the camera while performing?
No. It was too much for me to think about being filmed. I had to concentrate on the direction and guidelines set by the choreographer, along with communicating with my dance partners, the costumes, and the makeup.

Was more than one performance filmed?
They did two takes. In first, the makeup didn't work. It looked fine from a distance, but close up it looked like I was bleeding!

Did you draw on personal experiences to portray the character of the Mermaid?
Yes. I read The Little Mermaid when I was a young girl in China. I remember having the book with beautiful drawings. I was so overwhelmed by the story; I always ended up crying. Of course, John [Neumeier] brought a deeper level of the story to the ballet. Ultimately, the story is about unconditional love. It's an idea that's very dear to my heart.

Are there scenes that audiences found particularly memorable or were most memorable for you?
There were rave reviews about the first sea scene, when the curtain comes up and I'm in the sea. Audiences also gave a lot of positive feedback on the box solo. It was visually stunning. The music for that choreography was very challenging to dance to. And I end up in this little chair, trying to do movements on the chair. It was quite difficult, but I loved doing it.

After the final pas de deux with the Prince, I have solo in a red bridesmaid dress and I tear it off at the end. Every time—with the music, emotions, movement—I ended up in tears. I just couldn't help feeling that moment.

San Francisco Ballet: The Little Mermaid


Yuan Yuan Tan was born in Shanghai, China, and trained at Shanghai Dancing School and Stuttgart's John Cranko School. In 1992, San Francisco Ballet Director Helgi Tomasson saw the 15-year-old Tan perform and win the gold medal of the Junior Female division at the Fifth International Ballet Competition in Paris. He invited her to San Francisco to perform in the company's Nutcracker Suite, and soon thereafter offered her a position with San Francisco Ballet as a soloist. She became a principal dancer of the company a mere two years later, in 1997.

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