The Little Mermaid: Behind the scenes at the Leeds Grand

It became a hit for Disney, but as Northern Ballet returns to the dark heart of Hans Christian Andersen's tale, Sarah Freeman goes behind the scenes to discover the making of The Little Mermaid.

Abigail Prudames becoming The Little Mermaid.
Abigail Prudames becoming The Little Mermaid.

Abigail Prudames has a problem. She has spent so long in rehearsals for The Little Mermaid that every so often she forgets that she hasn’t got a tail. “I know it sounds odd, but occasionally I find myself looking behind me to see where it’s gone. It’s worse when I am going up or down stairs. At the start of rehearsals I was so used to tripping over the thing, but now it feels strange when I don’t have it on. It’s almost become part of me.”

Northern Ballet’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of a mermaid who sacrifices everything, including her tail, after falling in love with a human boy is the company’s Christmas show and should provide a fitting close to what has been a memorable 12 months.

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“This will be our third world premiere in a year and it has been a bit of a whirlwind,” says Abigail, who grew up in Harrogate and joined Northern Ballet in 2000. “We started with Casanova, which was just a fabulous production, then came The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and now this.

“What’s really lovely is that all three shows have been very different in terms of feel and atmosphere and personally The Little Mermaid is a really special moment in my career as a dancer.”

While Abigail, who trained at the Royal Ballet School from the age of 11, has been a key member of the company for some years, this is the first time a title role has been created for her. The production is being directed by Northern Ballet’s artistic director, David Nixon, and when the company walked into the first rehearsals they knew they were facing a completely blank canvas.

“Often the choreography exists and we just have to learn to dance it, but this was a different challenge,” says Abigail.

“I’ll be completely honest and admit that I didn’t really know the story before I was cast, but I went back to the original book and I was surprised how dark it is. What’s lovely about working on a production from scratch is that you get to build the character and bring something of yourself to it.

“I think David had more confidence in my ability to be part of the collaborative process than I did, but it has taught me a lot about choreography and a lot about myself. You learn that some days won’t go as well as others.

“Some directors arrive in the studio with almost a complete vision of what they want, but for The Little Mermaid it feels like we have built the show together.”

With a large gap in this year’s programme and a feeling that the company should stage something new rather than reviving an old favourite, Nixon says he didn’t have much time to agonise over the final show of the year.

“I had about a week,” he says. “I often think that when I am thinking what will or won’t work as a ballet I operate on a fantasy channel and then reality hits. That was certainly true of this show. Half of it is underwater, the main character spends 25 minutes having to dance with a tail and once you have worked out how to do that then you have to decide how you are going to move upwards from the depths of the ocean bed to the land.”

In order to help him, Nixon drafted in a small army of female talent, including composer Sally Beamish, known for her Celtic influences, set designer Kini Nakano and Northern Ballet’s own head of wardrobe, Kim Brassley.

“The question we had to ask ourselves is how is this a family ballet?” says Nixon. “When you look at the story you see it is about someone who falls in love in a very naive but truthful way and who is willing to give up everything which makes her who she is and leave behind a world where she is happy and accept that in her new life she will be in pain.”

Before opening in Leeds next week, the production premiered in Southampton and had a short run in Sheffield and all the reviews suggest that Northern Ballet may well have another hit on its hands.

“I think we have managed that balance between light and shade,” says Abigail. “Everyone looks forward to our Christmas shows and we wanted to make sure it was something that the children would enjoy, but often the best fairytales have a darkness about them.

“The real key for me was finding a way to show that Merilla is not of this world. Part of that is about the movement. Underwater she is never really still, even if it is just the slightest movement of the hand. When she arrives on dry land, the temptation is to make her just like any other girl, but she isn’t. She can never become fully human and will always feel different.

Once we started to develop that language of movement, then everything else began to fall into place.”

The costume department has certainly earned its crust, creating three complete sets of costumes to cover all casts. Over the last few months they have made eight wigs, 26 headdresses, 50 kilts and each of the female sea costumes contains 45ft of fabric.

Then there is the make-up. The colour palette, which is all shimmering greens and pinks, gives you some idea of the glittery nature of the show, which should be a suitably sparkly finale to 2017 for Northern Ballet.

“For me there is always something special about performing in Yorkshire because I know that my friends and family are in the audience. A lot of the dancers are from elsewhere in the country or abroad, but for me Christmas in Leeds is always a homecoming gig,” adds Abigail.

In previous years, the company has performed right through December, but this year they will be enjoying an extended break.

“It feels like a real luxury to have a few weeks off, but I think they thought that after the last 12 months we might need a rest by the time it got to December,” says Abigail. “I wasn’t sure what to expect when we started creating The Little Mermaid, but it has been a really great experience.

“Yes, I suppose it has given me a taste for being involved more in the choreography, but there is still so much more I want to achieve in my performing career. It’s no secret that I have always had an eye on playing the part of Cathy in Wuthering Heights.”

The Little Mermaid, Leeds Grand Theatre, December 5 to 17. 0844 848 2700,