Joffrey takes comedic turn

February 12, 2011
Chicago Tribune
Sid Smith


It's not often a choreographer gives himself a bad review.

But most choreographers aren't Ronald Hynd, the witty, congenial, sharp-as-a-whip British veteran whose long international career includes work with the likes of Margot Fonteyn, who danced in his ballet version of "The Merry Widow" when she was 57 — a tricky situation Hynd recalls fondly. "She danced it pretty well," he says. "We only had to make minor adjustments. And, of course, she brought that enormous personality."

Hynd, 79, is in town to oversee that 1975 ballet for its belated Chicago premiere via the Joffrey Ballet Wednesday through Feb. 27 at the Auditorium Theatre. Meanwhile, back to that bad review, which he bestowed on another ballet worlds apart from the acclaimed comedy "Widow."

"One of my few excursions into heavy drama was 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame,' for the Houston Ballet in 1988," Hynd recalls. "It was created under difficult circumstances. Another choreographer who shall remain nameless was creating a ballet at the same time, and I couldn't start rehearsing with the dancers until 4 p.m. each day. They arrived exhausted. The ballet just wasn't very good."

Hynd's metier is comedy, a talent to amuse arguably priceless in an art dominated by such tragedies as "Swan Lake" and "Giselle." The paucity of good comic ballets, Hynd notes, "is exactly the reason I keep getting asked to come back and do it again at 80. I don't find comedy hard; I find tragedy much harder. I suppose someone might look at 'Widow' by comparison and say, 'Oh, that's just rubbish.' But, though light, some of that Franz Lehar music is so deep, so beautiful. There's a heart, and in many places I've tried to bring that to the fore, so that it's not light, light, light all the time."

Hynd created "Widow" for the Australian Ballet at the invitation of Robert Helpmann, who came up with the idea. Despite its popularity as an operetta, it isn't a ballet natural. "There's not that much music to the operetta," Hynd notes. "There's an awful lot of dialogue." He credits his associate, the late John Lanchbery, with whom he went on to collaborate, for his musical adaptation. "John took a tiny little waltz, just a few bars, really, and turned it into a grand nine-minute dance. He used Lehar's themes, but repeated them and developed them." Something of a co-composer? "Very much so," Hynd says.

The story is set in the fictive Grand Duchy of Pontevedro, which, in a piquant timeliness, is a government facing bankruptcy. Nobles want Count Danilo to court and marry a rich widow named Hanna to keep her money inside the country. Comic shenanigans, involving other characters, ensue. "It's the relationships that are most amusing to me, all the people in love with someone they can't have," Hynd says.

The Joffrey production follows the troupe's terrific revival of Jerome Robbins' comic "The Concert (or the Perils of Everybody)" last fall. "In some ways, Ronnie and Robbins are similar in their approach to humor," says Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey's artistic director, who was a dancer when he met Hynd in 1977. "Every comic turn they ask for is tied to the music. They don't ask the dancers to decide how to be funny. It's built right into the choreography.

"Where they differ is that, growing up in England, you're influenced by the music hall and pantomime traditions," Wheater adds. "Robbins is very vaudeville and Broadway, though even there, British and American humor have a recognition of each other that Russian humor doesn't share."

"It's not about tricks, it's about telling the story," Matthew Adamczyk, one Joffrey dancer cast as Danilo, says. "In a lot of full-length ballets, there's the story, then the dancing. You pantomime the story, then you dance. Here, it blends."

"He's amazing in the studio," says April Daly, who'll dance the role of Danilo's wife, Valencienne. "Time flies by, partly because he's so clear. He's never vague."

Hynd knows this "Merry Widow" arrives in the hometown of the late Ruth Page, who choreographed her own version. She and Hynd also mounted versions of another operetta, "Die Fledermaus." Hynd called his "Rosalinda."

"She saw 'Rosalinda' and was very sweet, asking me afterwards, 'Isn't it difficult finding new waltz steps?'" he recalls of their encounter. A friend of Page's was a tad more proprietary. "She wrote me a letter praising the ballet but pointing out that a note in the program claiming it was the first-ever 'Fledermaus' ballet was wrong, that Miss Page indeed got there first."

If he's as good a raconteur on stage as in conversation, Hynd will score a win with "Widow" here. He tells of a racy, adventurous ballet about "mad King Ludwig" he choreographed in his troubled waning days as director of the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich:

"(My superior) came to see dress rehearsal, and after a scene involving monks who shed their cloaks and got practically nude, he said the production's off, there would be a scandal. I said there'd be a bigger one if he canceled and I spoke to the press, and so the premiere took place. Half the audience cheered, half of them booed."

He grins broadly. "It was wonderful."