The Merry Widow as a ballet was invented by the Australian Ballet and it has their spirit written all over it: irreverence without sarcasm or cynicism, joie de vivre and any feelings of desperation generally surmountable. It was Robert Helpmann’s brainchild, the Australian actor and dancer who got his launch in the 1930’s in Ninette de Valois’ Sadler’s Wells company becoming a very fine dancer especially in the character and demi-character rôles and a legendary Shakespearean actor too. The idea to make the famous operetta into a ballet came in 1975 when Helpmann was the Artistic Director and the Australian Ballet was only 13 years old and in a bit of a financial pickle. The Merry Widow on the one hand was created to be popular and bring in some money from the box office and succeeded in this, but it was really a very ambitious and visionary idea for it was the company’s first new full length ballet, a genre Ninette de Valois, speaking from experience, emphasized as very important for a growing company to undertake — in the full ‘three act’ ballet in the imperial Russian and earlier French tradition a company must tell a single story over an entire evening. The way Hynd, Heeley and Lanchbery went about putting the idea on the stage goes far beyond mere populism which they knew wouldn’t have helped the young company at all.
The boronia and the pink eriostemon are at the height of their bloom, most of the wattles are just finishing, the parrots, lorikeets and galahs are busy eating and nesting while the magpies are belligerent again and the air has taken on that warm, sweet, dusty polliniferous fragrance of spring. At least it has in this neck of the woods around 33 degrees South, but it isn’t so unlike May in New England. It was when these times came around my piano teacher in school would drop everything to play something with sharps — nothing too hairy, G or D or A major, say. As spring suggests sharps, seeming to say ‘up,’ so does ballet. In the classical technique one seems to dance always thinking ‘up’: relevé, sauté, piqué, even in a simple run across the stage or studio, the feet press up, up, up. Even standing in place, the hips tip up and the body seems to lift buoyantly. Even coming down from a jump, the feet and legs push up as the dancer lands. A dancer maintains a respectful and gentle relationship with the ground, as the surfer to the sea. Naturally, it is spring the Australian Ballet announces its new season and we turn our thoughts to a new year of ballet, but those already looking for wildflowers in the Bush need not turn their heads far.
Australia and Britain have particularly close artistic ties, cooperatively sharing artists, as is well documented in the British Liaisons program, along with fascinating pictures. For example, the Irish Briton Ninette de Valois, who helped found the Royal Ballet, sent expertise to many countries in the form of dancers and teachers from her company, Peggy van Praagh in Australia’s case, and she also traveled much herself, for example to Turkey and the Yugoslav nations to help set up their national ballet companies. De Valois also gave Robert Helpmann opportunities to use his acting and dancing talent after he came to England from Australia as a young man. Not mentioned in the program, de Valois in 1928 commissioned a score from the avant garde Australian composer Elsie Hamilton for her ballet The Scorpions of Ysit, though the original failed at the time, it would be interesting to restore it. A good 21st Century example is Peter Wright and John MacFarlane’s (an Englishman and Scot respectively) Nutcracker, which is also now in the Australian Ballet’s repetoire. In any case, the three ballets in this program, all from British choreographers, give a much more articulate description of modern artistic collaboration with Britain and show off its diversity. In addition, this program offers an opportunity to hear well played 20th century music that is not often heard.