Joffrey Ballet seduces Chicago

February 23, 2011
Loyola Pheonix
Laura Wagner

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Within the first five minutes of The Merry Widow, the French mistress' lover has already ripped off her dress. She tries pushing his hands down, but nothing can keep the lover from groping her breasts. This sensual beginning sets the tone for the next two and a half hours.

In 1975, Ronald Hynd converted the 1905 romantic operetta The Merry Widow into a three-act story ballet. Thirty-six years later, The Joffrey Ballet's Artistic Director, Ashley Wheater, honors Hynd's monumental choreography, as well as Hynd's 80th birthday, adding this unique ballet to the company's ever-expanding repertoire. The Merry Widow is a comic ballet that "dispels the perception of audience uncertainty of how to feel and what to think," Wheater said.

Wheater's desire to bring Hynd's ballet to the Joffrey stems from a relationship that blossomed 30 years ago, when Wheater danced his first role with Australian Ballet's rendition of The Merry Widow. After asking for Hynd's partnership, Wheater sent Hynd DVDs of the Joffrey. According to Wheater, "Ronnie was absolutely blown away by the quality of the company," and came to Chicago to work first hand with the dancers.

The ballet tells the story of Hanna, a widowed Pontevedrian who is worth 20 million francs and is in search of a new husband. However, Pontevedro will lose the benefit of her wealth if she marries a foreigner. The Pontevedrian Embassy unexpectedly introduces a potential match in the form of her ex-lover, a man who rejected her 10 years prior because she was a penniless peasant. The widow suspects her former lover's renewed interest is solely based on her exuberant wealth, and serves him a similar rejection.

Valerie Robin exquisitely dances the role of a widow, joined by her lover Count Danilo, played by Fabrice Calmels. Robin's broad and muscular shoulders creates a regal air that demands the audience's reverence and attention. April Daly and Mauro Villanueva danced the roles of a cheating French wife and her French lover respectively. The two sets of lovers intermingle through twisting and sweeping choreography, as well as in the plot line.

In act II's Pontevedrian national dance, Hynd utilizes the flexed foot in his choreography, creating a "tribal" dance feel. However, when not executed precisely, it appears to be more of a foot spasm rather than choreography. The most impressive aspect of the Pontevedrian national dance is not done by Calmels or Villanueva, but surprisingly by the young company member John Mark Giragosian, who wows the audience with jumps that make him appear seven feet tall.

The high kicks of the can-can dancers were playful, but it is Robin's and Daly's slow extensions, which move through the air as if pushing through molasses, that are executed with more finesse and more enjoyable to watch.

While Robin plays the role of the confidently wealthy widow, it is Daly's portrayal of a wife caught between her devoted husband and sensual lover that conveys more powerfully her conflicted emotions. In act III's pas de deux, Daly's dancing shows sorrow, love, passion and fear at the realization her husband has discovered her guarded secret (although everyone else already knows). It's nearly impossible to stop watching Daly's despairing yet stunning movement as she dances parallel to the melancholy widow.

Heavy drinking, 20 million francs, a cheating wife and arrogant lover, an oblivious husband, long ball gowns, a grand staircase with ominous candles, crystal chandeliers, intricate waltzes, can-can dancers and a view of the Eiffel tower are just some of the aspects of this nearly vaudevillian ballet.