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.

Everything old is new again

Metropolitan Opera House, New York, May 29 and May 30.

WHEN Serge Diaghilev decided to stage The Sleeping Beauty in London the monumental Russian Imperial-era ballet was not an obvious stablemate for the modernist dance works he had introduced with his Ballets Russes. But Diaghilev had his reasons. There was Tchaikovsky’s music, which he admired greatly and which was championed by Stravinsky (who reorchestrated part of the score for Diaghilev), and, more pragmatically, the cash-strapped Diaghilev was inspired by the success of the popular Oscar Asche musical comedy Chu Chin Chow. It ran for five years in London from 1916 and Diaghilev wanted, he said, to put on a show that would run “forever”. As Lynn Garofola writes in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, financial statements demonstrate “the precarious thread on which survival of the post-Armistice Ballets Russes hung”. As ever, being daring and experimental was not a guarantee of lasting security. The impresario badly needed money.

Titled The Sleeping Princess – apparently Diaghilev didn’t think all his Auroras were beautiful, hence the more prosaic wording – the production didn’t do badly by today’s standards, having a three-month run of more than 100 performances from November 1921 to February 1922. It didn’t, however, recoup its costs. Diaghilev left London quickly to give creditors the slip and Ballets Russes sets, scores, costumes, designs and other items were impounded. That they weren’t widely dispersed and lost is something of a miracle, but at various auctions in the 1960s and 1970s large tranches of the material were bought by cultural institutions, including what would later become the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Its rich Ballets Russes holdings, including some Léon Bakst costumes and sketches for The Sleeping Princess (the NGA has the Bluebird’s costume, a wonderful jewel), were shown in a fascinating 2011 exhibition Ballets Russes: The Art of Costume. When designer Richard Hudson used Bakst as inspiration for Alexei Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty for American Ballet Theatre, there was plenty of excellent research material available.

Léon Bakst Costume for the Bluebird c.1921 from the Ballets Russes' production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant] National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1980

Léon Bakst. Costume for the Bluebird c.1921 from the Ballets Russes’ production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant]. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

While Hudson’s opulent design references the 1921 production, Ratmansky’s choreography seeks to revive as nearly as possible that of Petipa’s 1890 St Petersburg original, a task made possible by study of the Stepanov notation of the ballet that was taken out of Russia after the 1917 revolution by St Petersburg ballet master Nikolai Sergeyev. Diaghilev also used this resource for his production.

An aside: Ratmansky’s Act III wedding celebration includes many storybook characters including Chinese Porcelain Princesses, who dance very little but walk with their hands raised and a finger pointed skywards – just as we can see in this sketch from the NGA’s collection. Dance critic Judith Mackrell wrote in The Guardian in March: “While the notation is very specific in certain respects, recording the height and positions of the legs, the direction of a phrase, the way the body is bent, it gives almost no information about the positions of the arms.” Direction would have to have come from elsewhere, and Ratmansky suggested that “Perhaps they just used the port de bras that were conventional – the ones everybody knew – or perhaps the principals were given the freedom to do what they wanted.”

Léon Bakst Costume design for the Chinese from The Sleeping Princess  1921 Souvenir programme for The Sleeping Princess at the Alhambra Theatre Research Library, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Léon Bakst. Costume design for the Chinese from The Sleeping Princess 1921. Souvenir programme for The Sleeping Princess at the Alhambra Theatre. Research Library, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The 1921 venture was by no means a dead end. The Sleeping Beauty had failed to get traction in revolutionary Russia but Diaghilev would change its fortunes. The Sleeping Princess may not have achieved its financial goal but it did have a lasting effect on British ballet and beyond. When Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now The Royal Ballet) went to New York in 1949 it opened with The Sleeping Beauty, with Margot Fonteyn in the title role, and made an enormous impact. The company’s director, Ninette de Valois, had appeared in the Diaghilev production, writes Mary Clarke in her 1955 Sadler’s Wells Ballet history, with Clarke commenting that the 1939 Sadler’s Wells production of Beauty, its first, “came far nearer the original” than the Diaghilev version, “many numbers being included which had not been seen since St Petersburg days”.

Sadler’s Wells marked important occasions with performances of The Sleeping Beauty and the work would become a touchstone work for The Royal Ballet. It would also become the benchmark classical work for any company. It’s the big one.

As with all the Petipa ballets, The Sleeping Beauty has been revised and reinterpreted many times. The Mariinsky staged a reconstruction of the original in 1999 that was not universally admired, not even by the Mariinsky itself it would appear, as the company has retreated from it. (It ran about four hours including intervals and allowed contemporary flourishes such as very high leg extensions for the women.) Now there is Ratmansky’s somewhat slimmer version to give audiences a window into the storied world of Russian Imperial ballet and to shine a light on Petipa’s choreographic style. ABT’s production lasts three hours including two intervals, although rather candidly the ABT program notes that the ballet was cut “somewhat to fit within the union defined time limitation”. Some mime and music had to go.

 

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.  Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Ratmansky’s Beauty is visually extravagant – mostly but not entirely successfully – but nevertheless a deeply impressive spectacle. The scale of the enterprise becomes apparent immediately as members of the court enter to celebrate the christening of Princess Aurora. The King and Queen preside over a large establishment of courtiers, cavaliers, attendants and pages, all gorgeously costumed. The Queen has a huge panniered gown with a lengthy train that requires the constant presence of small boys to carry, arrange and stumble over adorably. The fairies who have come to bestow gifts have their own brilliantly attired cavaliers and cushion-carrying children. The Lilac Fairy, being the highest ranked, has no fewer than eight men to accompany her. There are wigs for all and spectacular hats for many. The wicked fairy Carabosse arrives in a chariot and is supported by rats large and small, the little ones being particularly malevolent while also being on duty to prevent Carabosse from tripping over her extensive train. That is just the Prologue. In the Act I Garland Dance there are no fewer than 48 dancers: 32 adults and 16 students from ABT’s Jacqueline Onassis School. In Act III, Aurora and Prince Désiré enter the ballroom in wonderfully sumptuous white costumes entirely suitable for a royal wedding but not for dancing, so after a few minutes they slip away to change – returning in much simpler garments that from where I was sitting gave the impression that the couple was ready for bed once they’d completed their grand pas de deux.

(It is easy to see where the money – reportedly cost $US6 million – went. Not surprisingly Beauty is a co-production, with Teatro alla Scala presenting Beauty in Milan from September 26. Bolshoi principal and La Scala étoile Svetlana Zakharova is slated to dance three of the eight performances partnered by Bolshoi and ABT principal David Hallberg, who has been absent from the stage for many months while recovering from foot surgery.)

While the display is lavish, it frames a story told with strong, clear mime and many intimate, modest details. In this environment the music sounds immediate and fresh. Many familiar passages make a livelier impact because the more contained physicality means the music is not slowed for multiple fouettés (there are absolutely none here) or high-flying manéges of jetés with double sauts de basque thrown in. Leg extensions are relatively low and there are delightful pirouettes in which the retiré position – where one leg is pulled up and the foot placed against the supporting leg – is not much higher than the ankle. The effect is refined and charming, entirely suitable for a young woman at her birthday party. For both men and women there is a great deal of petit allegro; low, laser-sharp, extremely swift footwork that sparkles. It is as virtuosic, or more so, than today’s emphatic gestures and more intricate and sophisticated.

Herman Cornejo and Sarah Lane in Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Herman Cornejo and Sarah Lane in Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone

It was pleasing to note alterations in choreography to suit the different gifts and temperaments of the lead dancers. For instance, Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo, a less grand couple than the first cast of Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes, didn’t do the famous series of fish dives in the Act III pas de deux, and they weren’t missed. In fact, I felt the spirit of romance was better sustained without them, because the fish dives sent the audience’s applause-o-meter off the scale and interrupted the mood – for me, anyway.

At both performances I saw those around me were tickled by the Canari qui chante (Canary) fairy variation in the Prologue, its speed and fluttery quality bringing to mind the hummingbird as never before (in the Diaghilev production she is described as the Fairy of the Hummingbird). There were countless felicitious moments, but I particularly relished the double air turn landed on one foot that Cornejo, in the second performance, made look so elegant, and the way he held Lane in a series of supported pirouettes, using just one hand to turn her while his other arm was out-stretched. Darting eyelines and changing head and torso positions added texture and animation to dances, with the Diamond Fairy’s Act III variation particularly notable in this regard.

It was fascinating to see the Sapphire Fairy’s vivacissimo variation included. It rarely is. In notes to the full version of the score recorded by Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic (Chandos), David Nice writes: “The Sapphire Fairy is given one of the most original miniatures in the ballet, a racy number in the unusual metre of 5/4 to illustrate Petipa’s specified ‘five-pointed’ quality. And devilishly difficult it is to dance to – hence its usual absence from productions.”

The Chandos disc runs to two hours and 35 minutes of music and in his introduction Nice writes: “Neither at [the 1890] premiere … nor in more than a handful of subsequent choreographies has every note of Tchaikovsky’s score been heard (substantial cuts in 1890 included the music for the ladies of the Prince’s retinue in Act II and for the Fairies of the precious stones in Act III).”

The music for the Sapphire Fairy’s variation lasts only about 40 seconds, so there wouldn’t have been much of a saving there. A bigger cut was made by eliminating entrancing music that follows the Panorama in which the Prince sets off to find his sleeping princess. There are two entr’actes, the first excluded entirely and the second truncated, I think. Fascinatingly, Nice remarks of the latter entr’acte: “Not previously noted, I think, is the fact that the note C is sustained by the strings, principally for violins, for exactly 100 bars. This is time suspended: the ‘sleep’ chords … and the themes of the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse pass before us in shadow plan until the mists finally dissolve. Few if any productions observe the full symbolic duration of this hypnotic spell …”

The spell cast by Ratmansky is substantial, although not entirely complete. There are several puzzling dramaturgical decisions. For instance, Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy enter the wedding party together. There has been no repeat of the terrible mistake that saw Carabosse forgotten from the invitation list for the christening with such drastic consequences. All is forgiven and peace reigns. But if you’d blinked twice you would have missed this vital gesture of reconciliation as Carabosse whizzes across the back of the stage and is swallowed up by the throng. Another key moment, the kiss, is similarly underplayed. Aurora’s bed is to the audience’s right and would be difficult to see by those on that side of the theatre. I was seated quite centrally and only just had it fully in my line of vision. You really do want to see that kiss.

Léon Bakst Costume for a lady-in-waiting c.1921 from the Ballets Russes' production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant] National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1973

Léon Bakst. Costume for a lady-in-waiting c.1921 from the Ballets Russes’ production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant]
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.Purchased 1973

These are matters easily remedied. Something less easy to find is a sense of deep emotional engagement with the production. It is gracious, grand, meticulous, regal and restrained. It was fascinating to behold and I could easily have watched a third cast, and a fourth, and found more in it. It is a wonderful work of scholarship and I admired it greatly but there was a chill in the air.

American Ballet Theatre ends its Sleeping Beauty performances on June 13.