The Australian Ballet and its long dance with The Merry Widow

In her biography of Robert Helpmann, Robert Helpmann: A Servant of Art, Anna Bemrose describes how Helpmann, then artistic director of The Australian Ballet, was grilled by the Industries Assistance Commission in 1975. The IAC had been asked by the prime minister of the time, Gough Whitlam, to examine government arts funding and clearly some IAC members were not enamoured of the ballet company’s direction or its financial prospects.

Helpmann was asked, inter alia, to justify his decision to stage The Merry Widow. What relevance did it have to Australian culture? Then there was the question of money. As Bemrose amusingly points out, Helpmann was asked by the IAC whether he’d found a way of getting “on the cheap” the beauty ballet audiences wanted. “No, I am not a genius,” Helpmann replied.

The Merry Widow

Amber Scott as Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow with Adam Bull (left) as Danilo and Andrew Killian (right) as Camille. Photo: Daniel Boud

Widow was indeed expensive but it went ahead and, while its direct relevance to Australian culture may not have been as obvious as, say, Helpmann’s one-act contemporary ballet The Display (1964), it was an extraordinary success from opening night onwards. Its popularity prompted the company to put on season after season in the early years to the benefit of the bottom line, then and now. TAB has perpetual rights to the ballet – it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

As it happened, Whitlam’s government was dismissed two days before Widow opened in Melbourne on November 13, 1975, and Helpmann left the company not long after, having been dumped by the board. (Fences were mended. A decade later he was the Red King in Ninette de Valois’s Checkmate when it entered the TAB repertoire, nearly 50 years after he’d created the role. He left his hospital bed to play the part in July of 1986 and died that September.) Widow, however, would never be evicted. Helpmann’s long-held desire to translate the romance and glamour of Franz Lehár’s operetta to the ballet stage proved to be just the ticket. It was performed 178 times in the first two years alone.

TAB_The Merry Widow_Leanne Stojmenov and Artists of The Australian Ballet_Photo Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov as Valencienne in The Merry Widow. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Widow finishes its latest Melbourne run on June 16 it will have racked up more than 440 performances and be snapping at the heels of Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote for the honour of being TAB’s most-performed production. Only a handful of shows will separate them. Not surprisingly, various versions of Swan Lake together total more performances (767 from four productions ) and two versions of Giselle account for 700 performances. But worldwide favourite The Nutcracker (358 performances of four productions) doesn’t come anywhere near the Widow for durability.

It’s easy to list the Widow’s charms – well-known tunes, sumptuous sets and costumes, light comedy, lost-and-found love story – but they don’t by themselves suggest a work for all time. Widow is, nevertheless, embedded in TAB history in ways that make it glow more brightly for the home audience than for those, say, at American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet, National Ballet of Canada and the handful of other leading companies that have it in their repertoire, even though it’s great enjoyed as an entertainment. (Houston and NBC have both scheduled revivals of Widow for next year.)

TAB_The Merry Widow_Adam Bull and Kirsty Martin_Photo Jeff Busby

Adam Bull as Danilo and Kirsty Martin as Hanna. Photo: Jeff Busby

Widow was the first full-length ballet commissioned by TAB, which was founded in 1962 (it opened with Swan Lake, of course). Helpmann’s choice was astute. The operetta was well known and much loved in Australia and TAB’s music director John Lanchbery was just the man to arrange and orchestrate, with Alan Abbott, the music based on Lehár’s delectable melodies. Helpmann, whose theatrical instincts were legendary, wrote the scenario and wrested the rights from the estates, heirs and publishers who controlled Widow. Ronald Hynd was contracted to choreograph and Desmond Heeley to design in the opulent manner of the belle époque.

In the late 1920s Helpmann danced in Lehár’s operetta in Melbourne when Gladys Moncrieff took the title role and he said he’d always thought it would make a wonderful ballet. It’s certainly no intellectual heavyweight but underneath the surface buffoonery and rom-com shenanigans there are many delights, chief of which is the title role. It’s not true that Widow was made for Margot Fonteyn, as some think – Marilyn Rowe created the part – but it was choreographed with Helpmann’s long-time ballet partner in mind. Fonteyn called it “the most wonderful present”.

Surely it was Helpmann, credited with staging as well as scenario, who devised that marvellous entrance for Hanna, in which she sweeps down a broad staircase in her stunning black gown after pausing elegantly for effect, and for the inevitable applause.

Fonteyn was the first Hanna I saw when TAB toured to London in the sweltering summer of 1976, seven months or so after the ballet premiered in Melbourne. She was then 57 and her name helped bring attention to the company, as would Nureyev and his Don Q. Fonteyn also appeared many times in Australia and called Hanna “the most delightful role I could possibly have had”, wishing only that it had come to her rather earlier in her career.

There was, naturally, no particularly virtuosic choreography for Hanna but it required – and requires – effortless stage presence, melting luxuriance and an understanding of the thread of melancholy that underpins Widow and gives it some necessary shadows.

In the slender storyline, machinations are afoot to bring Hanna together in marriage with the rakish Count Danilo to prevent her money from leaving the small, impoverished Balkan country of Pontevedro. Danilo and Hanna were lovers when young but parted unhappily. In TAB’s current Widow program John Meehan, who was the first Danilo and partnered Fonteyn frequently in the ballet, describes how he saw her shoulders shaking as he rehearsed placing a cloak around her in the show’s final moments. He thought she was laughing at the ballet’s simplicity. “And she turned around and she was crying. It was so real to her.”

The Merry Widow

Colin Peasley as Baron Zeta with Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian. Photo: Daniel Boud

TAB has produced a long line of illustrious home-grown Widows, including the lustrous current principal artist Amber Scott, who opened the Sydney season in April. During that season former principal Kirsty Martin, who last danced Hanna in 2011 during her final year with TAB, returned as a guest artist. Now in her early 40s – a perfect age for Hanna – she opens the 2018 Melbourne season.

As I look through my old Widow programs, a snowstorm of cast sheets falls out. There are two from 1994, when two of TAB’s most luminous artists, Lisa Bolte and Miranda Coney, danced Hanna. They did so again in 2000, a year I which I somehow managed to see six performances. One was during the Olympic Arts Festival in Sydney when Widow was called upon to represent TAB to the visiting world.

For some reason I found myself in Perth in October that year and happened to see Widow with Coney again. At the end of that performance conductor Charles Barker, then TAB’s music director and now principal conductor at American Ballet Theatre, came onstage and asked Coney to marry him. (She said yes.)

Every time Widow has been revived it’s been possible to see Colin Peasley reprise his role as Baron Zeta, the much older husband of young Valencienne, who is in love with Camille. Peasley was the Baron at the ballet’s premiere in 1975 and was already a company veteran, having been a founding member. He’s now 83 but his artistry is undimmed. It’s such a joy to see there is still a place for him onstage, and not just in a walk-on. The Widow offers him a substantial part and the audience a priceless link to TAB history.

More links are added with each revival. This year TAB’s current artistic director, David McAllister, decided to cast himself in the small role of Njegus. The reason? Ballet master and former principal artist Steven Heathcote would be taking the role of Baron Zeta at some performances and McAllister thought it would be fun to be onstage with him again. Back in the day you couldn’t see Widow casting better than Heathcote as Danilo and McAllister as Camille. The embedding of The Merry Widow in TAB history continues.

The Merry Widow, Arts Centre Melbourne, June 7-16.

Odette to the power of four

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane. August 28, September 3 (matinee), September 3 (evening), September 4.

THE first act of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake ends as evening falls. Prince Siegfried has hurried away from his birthday party with no ceremony, disquieted by the realisation his carefree days are numbered. Because he is about to become king – this is no ordinary birthday; this is his coming of age – his mother has said he must marry.

In McKenzie’s version of this endlessly fascinating ballet there are some aspects of the narrative that are drawn too sketchily and details to quibble over, but after seeing four performances I have been won over by the central idea. With Zack Brown’s storybook designs providing a sumptuous setting, McKenzie creates a fantasy world in which myth can thrive, in which a sorcerer could cast a spell that turns a princess into a swan by day, and in which he can himself shape-shift between monster and suave nobleman.

Act III of Kevin McKenzie's Swan Lake. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Act III of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

The atmospherics are nowhere better captured than at the Act I finale, in which the peasants who have been enjoying Siegfried’s festivities are the last to leave. Without the aristocracy present and bathed in Duane Schuler’s lustrous lighting design, they start gamboling more freely as the light fades, picking up wine goblets to take with them as they depart. I was reminded of Matisse’s painting La Danse, which celebrates the primal joy of communal celebration, and it is an image I will carry with me for a long time.

All this can only work, of course, if the dancers persuade one to enter their imaginative realm.

There was much to interest balletomanes. Misty Copeland made her debut as Odette and Paloma Herrera gave what was possibly her final performance in the role – the decision will come when Swan Lake is staged in ABT’s next season, which will be Herrera’s last (she recently announced her impending retirement). Newly minted principal artist Isabella Boylston appeared (unfortunately I missed her and Daniil Simkin, but people raved; I also missed Veronika Part). Martine Van Hamel, former ABT great, played the Queen Mother at some performances and radiated command. Recently elevated soloist Joseph Gorak showed why he has been plucked from the corps and two men still in the corps, Arron Scott and Calvin Royal III caught the eye. Yet another corps member, Thomas Forster, made a saturnine, panther-like Von Rothbart in several casts.

Three conductors shared Swan Lake duty over the nine performances, two of them with Australian connections. Music director Ormsby Wilkins was born in Sydney and was The Australian Ballet’s resident conductor in 1982, thereafter being a frequent guest conductor while making his career in the northern hemisphere. ABT principal conductor Charles Barker was the AB’s music director from 1997 to 2001 and is married to former AB principal dancer Miranda Coney. Each directed the Queensland Symphony Orchestra quite differently, and each time the QSO acquitted itself handsomely.

The ABT season, the company’s first in Australia, unfortunately got off to a lacklustre start. There may have been extenuating factors. David Hallberg was to have partnered Hee Seo on the August 28 opening night but withdrew relatively late to have ankle surgery. Cory Stearns was moved in. Whether it was jetlag or just one of those unfathomable matters of chemistry who knows, but Seo and Stearns failed to catch fire. Seo has many beautiful qualities as a dancer but looked uninvolved, Stearns operated on one supercilious level and the relationship was unprofitable. Alexandre Hammoudi’s Act III Von Rothbart was therefore left to provide the fireworks, and if Von Rothbart is the highlight of the show there’s a problem. The corps was untidy too. Not a great night all round.

Misty Copeland as Odile. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Misty Copeland as Odile. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

I returned a week later to see Copeland’s historic debut as Odette. Tucked away at a Wednesday Brisbane matinee she gave an impassioned performance that brought the house to its feet. Her Odette was intense, warm and dramatically alert; her Odile sparkled seductively. It was a wonderful first performance. Indeed, it was the only one to bring tears to my eyes, even though her Siegfried, Hammoudi (also making a debut) was off form technically. Still, he partnered beautifully, and that ultimately mattered most.

That evening (September 3) Gillian Murphy gave an entirely different performance, imbued with the deep, deep understanding she has absorbed over many years. She, more than any other I have seen, evoked the eternal nature of Odette’s predicament. She was captured aeons ago and there is nothing but sorrow in her future. All those years in Von Rothbart’s thrall have altered her irrevocably. Murphy’s Odile was equally distinctive – fascinatingly hard, cold and vindictive. James Whiteside’s all-American boy Siegfried (divinely danced, with a blinder of an Act I solo) didn’t stand a chance.

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: Gene Schiavone

On September 4 Paloma Herrera was stupendous, filling the stage with old-world glamour of a kind exceptionally rare these days. She took much of Odette’s choreography incredibly slowly – David LaMarche conducted – and claimed rapt attention at every instant. She commanded the stage more as a distillation of Swan Lake’s themes than the embodiment of two opposing characters. She seemed somehow abstract, yet entirely mesmerising. Odile has a balance on pointe in arabesque that often lasts only a split second; Herrera held it for an age: poised, implacable, timeless. Herrera has been a principal with ABT for 20 years and looks as if she could dance another 20. If it turns out this was her swan song, if you will, it was a great one.

Paloma Herrera in Act II of Kevin McKenzie's Swan Lake for ABT

Paloma Herrera in Act II of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake for ABT

Herrera was partnered by Stearns, whose dancing was as handsome and velvety as it had been on opening night but this time he was engaged and vivid. He looked an entirely different man. I’m sometimes asked how I can go to the same show again and again. It’s because it’s never the same show, not ever.