‘They want to dream a little longer’: the deep appeal of mermaids | stage

HEna sunny Thursday in June, Tinside Lido in Plymouth was flooded with mermaids. It was a sea of ​​metallic shimmer, candyfloss colours, seashell bikinis and long scaly tails. At a count of 378, this was the largest ever gathering of merpeople, according to the Guinness Book of Records. “It was fabulous,” says editor Pauline Barker. “Such a happy, colorful day. People went to town with the sparkles and glitter and it was really joyful.”

Barker is a committed wild swimmer, who owns her own mermaid tail. “I live in the world of outdoor swimming and when we imagine ourselves to be mermaids, or dolphins or sirens of the sea, it’s just bringing that fantasy world to life for a few hours,” she says.

“Mermaiding” has gone mainstream, with an industry of mono-fins, tails and accessories, mermaid swim schools, communities of merfolk and professional mermaids appearing at events and aquariums. YouTube is awash with mermaid makeup tutorials, showing how to stretch fishnet tights over your face to stencil the effect of scales. But mermaids are not so much having a moment as always bobbing in and out of cultural life. Stories of mythical sea-dwelling women appear in folklore worldwide, dating back thousands of years, from the Syrian fertility goddess Atargatis to the Japanese ningyo, the volatile spirit of Mami Wata in west Africa, Irish merrows or Thai mermaid princess Suvannamaccha. Some are benevolent, some raging like the stormy seas; some protect sailors, others bring down their ships.

In more current iterations, Disney recently released the trailer for their new live action Little Mermaid movie, out next year, and there is a remake of the Tom Hanks/Daryl Hannah movie Splash in the works, with Channing Tatum as a gender-swapped merman . Meanwhile, Northern Ballet is currently touring with David Nixon’s The Little Mermaid, a family ballet based on the most enduring mermaid in cultural life, Hans Christian Andersen’s aquatic princess intoxicated by the human world.

Gone mainstream … mermaids gather at Tinside Lido in Plymouth, Devon, to break the world record for the biggest mermaid gathering. Photograph: (awaiting credit)

Andersen’s story may have been overshadowed by the Disneyfied version, but as is so often the case, the original – which Nixon followed for his ballet – is somewhat bleaker. A mermaid who gives up everything: family, home, her tail and her greatest asset, her voice, for an infatuation with a man who ultimately does n’t love her back.

In Nixon’s ballet, the sea lord takes the mermaid’s voice in exchange for a potion that will give her human legs, telling her prince she’ll only survive if the marries her. “I think people were a little shocked when they first saw the solo I made where she loses her tail, because it is painful, the cramps and the spasms,” says Nixon. “I imagine it like sharp shooting pains and pins and needles,” says Abigail Prudames, the dancer who created the role.

Without her voice, the mermaid can’t explain who she is, and she has to watch him marry another woman knowing that without his love she will die. She’s offered a final bargain, kill the prince and return to being a mermaid, but she cannot do it. “It’s about love in its purest sense,” says Nixon. “If you really love somebody there’s a selflessness about it, it’s about them, not about you. You sacrifice yourself.”

It’s a real loss of innocence tale. “She knows the prince has his happy-ever-after and she ca n’t go back, she’s got to deal with it,” says Prudames. “People make so many mistakes when they’re young, but no matter what choice you make, you have to understand you made it for a reason. At that time it was right for you.”

Before this all sounds too heavy, Prudames adds, “There’s so much in this ballet for children!” Not least fabulous costumes and graceful, rippling undersea creatures, but as with most fairytales, you read into it whatever you’re ready to see.

'It's tragic really' … The Folkestone Mermaid by Cornelia Parker.
‘It’s tragic really’ … The Folkestone Mermaid by Cornelia Parker. Photograph: David Hare/Alamy

It’s easy to view Andersen’s story as a decidedly unfeminist tale. “It’s tragic really, heartbreaking,” says artist Cornelia Parker, of the voiceless young woman. When Parker chose to create her own mermaid statue, for the Folkestone Triennial in 2011, she was equally inspired by the HG Wells story The Sea Lady, “which was about a mermaid who was a siren, the opposite of the passive figure of the Little Mermaid”. Aping Copenhagen’s famous statue, Parker’s bronze is perched on the rocks overlooking Sunny Sands beach, but it monumentalises a real, living woman, Georgina Baker, a local mother of two. As with all good public art, the Folkestone Mermaid means many things to many people. She’s been dressed in Halloween costumes and bunny ears, children sit in her lap, people leave their clothes with her when they go swimming: she’s a landmark, meeting point and a proud local symbol.

As the statue gazes out on to the horizon, Parker says the Folkestone Mermaid is also “almost like a bellwether for rising sea levels”. “At high tide she she’s more or less sitting in the waves; she she might get swept away at some point. I always thought of her a bit like Canute, keeping back the waves.” There is often an environmentalist angle among mermaid lovers. Many involved in the mermaid community come from a marine conservation perspective, including the fundraisers at Brighton’s annual March of the Mermaids.

The founder of the Brighton event was inspired by the long-running Coney Island Mermaid Parade, a celebration of creativity and dressing up which also inspired the award-winning children’s book Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. It’s a beautifully illustrated story of a boy who sees mermaids on the subway, on their way to the parade, and dresses up like them at home. You’re not sure whether his grandmother is going to approve, but in the end she takes him to the parade – it’s a lovely story of self-expression and acceptance.

Sea Person bust created by Eve Shepherd for the National Maritime Museum.
‘Friends with every living thing’ … Sea Person bust created by Eve Shepherd for the National Maritime Museum. Photograph: Eve Shepherd

In recent years, the mermaid has also become a symbol for the trans community. It resonates for various reasons, as a transformative being that moves between worlds. Sculptor Eve Shepherd created a bust called Person of the Sea for the National Maritime Museum, working with young people who were trans or gender-diverse. She drew on the young people’s ideas about what they wanted the creature to be, something that was “very friendly and belonged to all places, the sea, the air and the land, and it was friends with every living thing.” Her creation is more than a mermaid, having wings as well as scales. They also wanted the creature to have a timeless, primeval quality, like the earliest organisms that moved from sea to land, because “even though the trans and non-binary community might not have been acknowledged until now by the west, they’ve always been here.”

Shepherd’s own view of the Little Mermaid story comes colored by the knowledge that Hans Christian Andersen was gay (some debate that label, but he certainly fell in love with men as well as women, mostly unrequited). “The longing of being in love with this person from another world – there’s a sadness when you know the underlying story,” says Shepherd. “I can understand why the mermaid metaphor’s been used by the gay community, and crossed over into the trans and non-binary community.”

The mermaid belongs to everyone, its appeal ever broadening. When costume designer Magdalena Jovanovic started up her business Planet Mermaid selling mermaid tails in 2009, it quickly grew and grew. “It was like: Oh! I’m on to something,” she says. She started out making tails for children (for merboys as well as girls) and then found adults were asking for them too. “Speaking to the customers, parents want their children to dream, they want the fairytale to last longer for them,” says Jovanovic. “And for the adults it’s similar, they want to dream a little longer.”

Some people are taking their creativity further. “People are being vampire mermaids or zombie mermaids at the moment,” she says. “I’ve always loved the beauty of costume and how it can change you from one person to another. With just the right cut of fabric, the right shape, you can create a character.” She likens the experience of swimming in a mermaid tail to turning into a butterfly. “That’s the only way I can describe it. You instantly change.”

For a final word on what’s so great about mermaids, I consulted an expert, my five-year-old niece Lana. “They can talk underwater and sharks do n’t eat them,” is her reasoning. “And I like the sparkles on the tail.”

“All of the ocean animals are their friends,” says her older sister Sophie, before adding, “And it is just cool to be half fish.”

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