You don't see much love on the ballet stage these days," said Ronald Hynd, choreographer of The Merry Widow.
But there's love in abundance in Hynd's evening-length ballet -- and intrigue, glamour, and screwball comedy, too. Created for the Australian Ballet in 1975 and performed by the likes of Margot Fonteyn, it's one of the few 20th-century story ballets to have been a lasting hit around the world.
And it's the all-stops-pulled opener for Tulsa Ballet's 2011-2012 season this weekend at the PAC.
Set to music from Franz Lehar's operetta, including the famous "Merry Widow Waltz," the ballet tells the story of Hanna Glawari, a wealthy widow from an impoverished country called Pontevedro, who comes to Paris (circa 1905) looking to land a new husband. Determined to keep her money in his country, the Pontevedrian ambassador in Paris schemes to marry her to Pontevedro's First Secretary, Count Danilo -- a man with whom, it turns out, the widow and former peasant girl Hanna had an affair years before.
The ballet is full of political machinations, clandestine rendezvous, slapstick humor, and many other complications that tend to come about when you mix what Hynd identified as the two main movers of the story: "sex and money."
The Merry Widow -- its story and its music -- has appealed to glamour-seekers for more than a century. In 1934, the operetta was even adapted into a film directed by Ernest Lubitsch, starring Maurice Chevalier as Danilo.
Hynd tells the story through different styles of dance in the ballet's three acts. The first act's Embassy Ball is full of classic waltzes out of turn-of-the-century Europe. The second act, which takes place at Hanna's villa, features folk dances and Polonaises (for "Pontevedrian" flavor). And the third is pure French fun as the story moves to Maxim's, with can-can girls and plenty of Parisian fizz.
Hynd has staged The Merry Widow many dozens of times over the ballet's 36-year life on companies from American Ballet Theatre to the Royal Danish Ballet, and yet, he said, "I never get bored with doing it."
He spent four weeks in Tulsa teaching and coaching the dancers in their parts and had high praise for them.
"We've got a splendid Danilo in Alfonso Martin," he said. "It's as if this role was made for him. We have a lovely, elegant widow in Sofia Menteguiaga, who actually danced in my production of this ballet in Santiago, Chile. We have Soo Youn Cho as the Ambassador's wife, Valencienne, who is simply adorable. And we have Wang Yi as the French attache -- very dapper.
"Tulsa Ballet 'old-timers' Don Edwards and Wilson Lema are also returning for this performance, so it's a wonderful cast."
"It's quite hard for a company, this ballet," Hynd admitted. "It's not millions of pirouettes, but the style of the dancing is challenging. It's tough stuff, and these dancers are doing it wonderfully."
Angelini worked for over a decade to acquire the rights to perform the ballet, which will receive its Oklahoma premiere this weekend.
"Fifteen years ago when I first came here to do my ballet, Rosalinda," Hynd recalled, "the company was half the size it is today. For years after that I said, 'No, Marcello, I don't think the company's right for The Merry Widow, not knowing what he was doing as the new artistic director. But he sent me tapes [of recent Tulsa Ballet performances], and I thought, 'Gracious, this is good stuff.'
"Now I've been handed this splendid company. What's happened in 15 years is fabulous. There are very good boys, strong boys, and lovely girls. They really bring their own ideas to it."
"Finally, audiences in Tulsa will be treated to this very unique piece of theater," said Angelini. "The fact that companies in the major capitals of the world have this work in their repertoire is a testament to its quality and entertainment value. I can't wait to share it with our Tulsa friends."
"It's one of those rare works where everything comes together: the story has room for both romance and humor, the music is so effervescent and gratifying, the sets and costumes are stunning and the show, overall, is lighthearted and supremely entertaining," Angelini said.
"Mr. Hynd's stunning choreography and his unique storytelling skills, coupled with his ability to develop characters, round up the reasons for the worldwide success of this work."
The sets and costumes for this production were created by Roberta Guidi di Bagno, a noted Italian designer who has created ballet sets for companies such as Pacific Northwest Ballet, English National Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet and La Scala in Milan. This is the first time Tulsa audiences will see her work, which Angelini described as "opulent."
"We've gotten so used to a blank stage [in ballet today]. Here we really have a stage full of scenery," Hynd laughed, "and it's magnificent."
Hynd admitted The Merry Widow was in some ways "old-fashioned," but he was equally convinced of its ability to appeal to a modern audience. "For one thing, some of these characters are slightly risqué. Danilo is a drunk and a womanizer. Valencienne is a flirt. But they all have deep love within them. I think this is really something audiences respond to. And of course it's very glamorous -- and it's got the most beautiful score."
Tulsa Ballet will perform The Merry Widow Sept. 23-25 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.
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