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Head under the sea with Ballet West's 'Little Mermaid'

Published April 1, 2014 9:17 am

Performance • Production of "Little Mermaid" lets younger audiences experience classical dance.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

What do industrial reticulated foam, car roof upholstery and ballet chiffon have in common?

They can all be found in Ballet West's costume shop to create an undersea world of characters for the upcoming family show — a dance interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid."

Ballet West debuted its Family Series two seasons ago with "Mermaid," and last year premiered "Aladdin." The series is designed for younger audiences, with earlier start times, a run time of 1 hour and 20 minutes and a familiar plot line.

But that doesn't mean it is short on classical dancing or expression.

Christopher Sellars, interim director of Ballet West II and first soloist with the main company, has been busy coaching the BW II leads. The performers in "Little Mermaid" are from Ballet West II, the professional trainee program, which is part of the Ballet West Academy, and students from the academy.

"I tell them to go home and make faces in the mirror," Sellars said. "They have no trouble tapping into the emotions but they have to learn to make those emotions read out across, to the back of the theater."

Two years ago Pamela Robinson-Harris, ballet mistress and co-choreographer of the Family Series, predicted the shows would grow with the dancers, and vice versa. So they decided it would be fiscally smart, and artistically viable to rotate the shows, adding a new one every few years.

"When we did Mermaid the first time it was great, but now it's fabulous. All of the dancers — BW II, the trainees, and the BW Academy students — have improved tremendously so we've tweaked the show to make it even stronger."

And it definitely takes a village. Costume production director David Heuvel has been stitching together the back story for Ballet West since 1979 and he can tell you a thing or two about experimentation, collaboration and engineering.

"The family shows are fun because it is different from what we normally do," Heuvel said. "The kids are so excited they will help you in any way they can and so it becomes a collaboration between the dancers, props, costumes and the choreographer."

The artistry, Heuvel says, "comes in that fine line between a costume that tells you something about the nature of the character rather than a cartoonish, stereotypical caricature."

Of course the performers also need to be able to dance in these inventive costumes, which is why you'll find the very refined Heuvel in automotive shops and air conditioning repair warehouses. He's also a regular at Jo-Ann Fabrics.

"To build the bodies of the Goldfish we used reticulated foam used in air conditioners — it has longevity, can be washed and doesn't dry out," Heuvel explained. "Typical foam rubber is very dense but reticulated foam is airy and light — I like the Goldfish, they are very literal."

Heuvel went to an automotive shop to buy a large quantity of car ceiling/roof material because he needed something "that was rigid but could still move" for the Four Little Crabs (a Swan Lake reference for ballet- insiders) and for the Goldfish fins.

Heuvel describes the Crabs as "charming" but added the challenge was to create the "weird little knuckles" from the roofing material.

The mermaids weren't easy either since — as we all know — the creatures have the upper body of a human but the tail of a fish. For the production, the costumes needed to have the legs able to split for movement while appearing to be together.

"Adam (artistic director Adam Sklute) suggested we use pleated chiffon" Huevel said. "The challenge was mounting non-stretch chiffon into the inner seam of the unitard, which is a stretch material. I didn't think it would work, but it did."

What excites Heuvel most these days is working in the recently renovated Capitol Theatre, which for the first time includes the costume shop in the same building as the dancers.

Until now Heuvel and his department packed and unpacked costumes for alterations or new costumes for every show.

"It will be very exciting to have a fitting room where dancers can come and go back to rehearsal," Heuvel said. "It's taken 30 years but it was worth waiting for." —

"The Little Mermaid" featuring Ballet West II

When • Friday, April 4, 7 p.m., Saturday, April 5, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Sunday, April 6, 2 p.m.

Where • The Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $15-$35, arttix.org