‘Merry Widow’ makes its Joffrey debut

February 11, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
Hedy Weiss


The prop table just outside the Joffrey Ballet’s rehearsal studio gave a hint of the story being danced inside. Piled beside an assortment of elegant black walking sticks with silver handles fit for 19th century European gentlemen was a box of large silk fans ideal for a ballroom fete. And alongside them were several bottles of champagne just ready for popping and pouring.

Inside the studio, a great gathering of couples could be found swooping and soaring as they fluidly circled the floor to the sounds of a grand waltz — one of the big ensemble sections in “The Merry Widow,” Ronald Hynd’s full-length ballet based on the popular 1905 operetta by Franz Lehar. The dance version of this romantic comedy, created in 1975 for the Australian Ballet, has become almost as popular as the operetta itself, with such companies as the National Ballet of Canada, the Royal Danish Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Houston Ballet, the La Scala Opera Ballet and the Vienna State Opera Ballet all taking turns with it.

Now, the Joffrey company, with its grand tradition of alternating between full-length “story” ballets (by such masters as John Cranko, Frederick Ashton, Anthony Tudor and Lar Lubovitch), and mixed repertory programs featuring more modern, often abstract pieces, is having its first go at the work, presenting the Midwest premiere Feb. 16-27 at the Auditorium Theatre,

“The lifts are lovely, but be sure to keep moving as you land,” Hynd said as he coached the dancers recently. The still tall, trim, high-spirited British-bred dancer-turned-choreographer, who will celebrate his 80th birthday in April, has a professional history that reaches back to the golden age of English ballet (he danced with the fabled Ballet Rambert, Sadlers Wells and Royal Ballet troupes). And he has since created ballets danced by many of the world’s great companies.

It was Sir Robert Helpmann (best known for his role in the landmark 1948 dance film, “The Red Shoes”) who crafted the ballet’s scenario and invited Hynd to work on “The Merry Widow” for the Australian Ballet.

“I’d never seen the operetta — though I’ve caught many productions since ­­— but I’d heard the 1953 recording with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf,” Hynd confessed. “I’m glad I came to it fresh. And I knew the challenge was to find ways to give expression to all the dialogue using the language of dance and mime.”

The story is pure whipped cream, although as Hynd noted, “It is very much a story about patriotism and saving a bankrupt fatherland, which seems to be a crisis faced by many countries at the moment.”

In “The Merry Widow,” the country in question is the fictional little middle-European Grand Duchy of Pontevedro, which makes a grand show of things at its elaborate embassy in Paris, but which, like its sovereign, the dashing Count Danilo, is now bankrupt. There is only one solution to this problem: A way must be found to marry off Danilo to Hanna Glawari, a beguiling widow — once just a peasant girl in Pontevedro — who has inherited a fortune from her late husband. Of course, neither romance nor the bankrolling of a country can ever be so easily finessed. And there also has been some complicated “history” between Danilo and Hanna.

“From the start, I wanted to go more deeply into Lehar’s music,” Hynd said. “And I was so lucky to have as my collaborator and musical arranger the brilliant John Lanchbery [then the musical director of the Australian Ballet]. He was able to turn just a few bars of a waltz into a wonderful eight-minute extravaganza.”

Hynd, who, in his prime danced many of the great classical ballet roles, said that as a dancer he always “was most interested in developing a character and working with a dramatic situation.”

“I think doing that makes you a better dancer,” he said. “This ballet is all about people in love who are in impossible situations, whether because of an inability to commit, or because they are already married and the rest. So there are all these wonderful crosscurrents. Of course, through her cleverness, the widow gets her man. And while in the operetta she tells him: ‘I will never say I love you,’ it is phrases like that which I had to somehow embed in the movement, and which I try to evoke from the dancers.”

Hynd hadn’t seen the Joffrey company for decades when he got a call from the troupe’s artistic director, Ashley Wheater, about staging the work here.

“But I knew Ashley himself had danced in the ballet when he worked in Australia,” said Hynd. “And he sent me videos of the company, and I thought the dancers looked fantastic. I am even more impressed as I work with them.”

By opening night, Hynd, accompanied by his wife, former ballerina Annette Page, will have spent about a month coaching the Joffrey.

“It really is such a gift for us to get this work directly from its creator,” said Joffey artistic director Ashley C. Wheater, who noted much of the initial teaching was done by John Meehan, who danced Danilo in the original production.

“These dancers have such high technical standards and are very fluid with their arms and upper bodies,” Hynd said. “It’s the kind of beautiful dancing you don’t always get with American companies. And we have three different casts for the production, with each one bringing a very different quality to the ballet.”