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'The Little Mermaid': Dance performance incorporates new message and media

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Dancers rehearse for "The Little Mermaid" in costumes, which include waterproof tops made with Silicone and chiffon "fins" on the end of their leggings to provide a billowing look.


Kim Grizzard

Friday, January 19, 2018

Long before “The Little Mermaid” became synonymous with an animated, singing crab on the big screen, Hans Christian Andersen told the story of a mermaid who exchanged her voice for two legs that would allow her to dance like no human had ever danced before.

It is the classic tale more than the Disney version that set the course for the Eastern NC Dance Foundation’s “The Little Mermaid,” which is being presented this weekend by the Dance Collective. The performance in ECU’s Wright Auditorium is a fundraiser for Make-A-Wish of Eastern North Carolina.

“I think when we announced that it was ‘The Little Mermaid,’ I think every little kid’s thought goes to Disney,” Cherita Lytle, company manager for The Dance Collective, said. “This is not a Disney (show).”

There are dancing (not singing) crabs, jellyfish, turtles and an octopus. The 60-member cast also includes seagulls, starfish, seahorses, a manta ray and a lobster.

But rather than compete with what people have seen at the movies, Dance Collective Artistic Director Kimberly Gray-Saad has found ways to incorporate the big screen into the production. In addition to the live performance on stage, audiences will watch video segments that include fluid motion designed to advance the storyline.

One, filmed underwater at Winterville’s Aquaventure, shows Caroline Bonnette as Ariel coming to the rescue of Prince Eric.

“Because we’re trying to create a ballet audience to go into the next generation, we feel strongly that incorporating audiovisual techniques, such as underwater filming within the ballet helps keep it current,” Saad said.

The scene, shot in November, gave filmmakers from InMotion a chance to dive into underwater videography. Jeremy Brandt was positioned inside a 12-foot dive tank, along with Reigner Bethune, who was cast as Eric prior to an injury. (Manuel Barriga, formerly of Carolina Ballet, will dance the stage role instead.) Bonnette swam in a costume that included a mermaid tail, which is not included in the stage performance.

Cast and crew members quite literally held their breath to complete the scenes. Lifeguards were on standby during the filming, which took several hours.

Saad believes the effort was worth it.

“Having the video aspect helped tell the story,” she said. “Hopefully it will help the audience buy into the fantasy that we’re trying to create.”

The story that the Dance Collective performance is seeking to create is not the typical boy-meets-girl. The relationships that “The Little Mermaid” emphasizes are not necessarily romantic ones.

“Instead of (Ariel) having a love interest with our prince character, we decided that we would make it an empowering story for women and young girls, an anti-bullying campaign,” Saad said.

The anti-bullying stance is a familiar one at Saad’s studio, Greenville Civic Ballet, which has a buddies program that pairs younger dancers with older peers for support.

“We are promoting a sense of unity and inclusivity here,” Saad said, “so that’s what we want to show on stage as well.”

“The Little Mermaid,” the ninth original ballet to be performed by the Dance Collective, is not the company’s first performance to incorporate video. InMotion also filmed scenes for “Beauty and the Beast,” which the company performed from 2016-17.

“I think it (incorporating film into the dance performance) is just a different dimension,” said Jennifer Bogenn, who owns InMotion with her husband, Tim. “It’s just another art element to add into the dance.

“It’s just to bring it a little more to life, a little more realistic in places,” she said. “It’s really just another layer, another element of art.”

Eastern NC Dance Foundation President Heather Stepp, whose daughter, Stella, is a guest performer in “The Little Mermaid,” believes the added video element is one key to attracting a younger audience to ballet.

“Technology is so much a part of our children’s lives,” she said. “Having that component makes it more interesting ... brings them to the table to then be exposed to ballet.”

Saad agreed.

“We don’t want to lose our ballet audience,” she said. “We want to create a new generation of ballet enthusiasts.”


The Eastern NC Dance Foundation will present The Dance Collective in “The Little Mermaid” at 6 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in ECU’s Wright Auditorium. The performance is a fundraiser for Make-A-Wish of Eastern North Carolina, with matching grants provided by the Community Foundation of NC East. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $50 for VIP (including priority seating and a reception prior to the performance.) Visit ecuarts.com.


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