I've had a copy of the Australian Ballet's dvd of The Merry Widow near my desk for a very long time. As all bird-watchers will tell you, things that don't move become invisible, and so there it was gathering dust – literally – and un-noticed. That's where the cleaners and the spilt cleaning fluid come in to play: a moment of panic, grabbing up books and papers, and hey-presto, the 1993 recording reappeared in time for Christmas.
This is very fine dancing indeed. The company shine and the principals are excellent both in their technique and style, capturing the irony and tongue-in-cheek quality that is essential to draw the audience into this rather flimsy, though very enjoyable, plot.
The ballet was created for the company in 1975. The scenario and staging were designed by Robert Helpmann, with choreography by Ronald Hynd, and orchestrating and arranging by the omnipotent John Lanchbery. Since then the ballet has entered the repertory of many companies including the National Ballet of Canada (whose version was recorded in 1987 with Karen Kain), the Royal Danish Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, the Houston Ballet, the Vienna State Opera Ballet and the La Scala Ballet. Since then dancers such as Margot Fonteyn (when she was 58!) and Carla Fracci have interpreted the role of the rich widow Hanna.
The Australian Ballet recording was recorded live at Melbourne's State Theatre and thankfully not in the slightly cramped Sydney Opera House. Lisa Pavane (Hanna Galwari), Steven Heathcote (Count Danilo Danilovitsch), Rebecca Yates (Valencienne) and David McAllister (Camille de Rosillon) are all excellent. Versatility, technical excellence and a warm, friendly style are the trademarks of The Australian Ballet and they obviously enjoy performing this piece and understand it from within.
The precision and flair of the corps de ballet cannot be bettered. But then they have an excellent ballet school.
Founding Artistic Director Peggy van Praagh laid down two essential requirements for the young company: that it must have its own school. Through the consistent excellence of The Australian Ballet School and the close-knit ensemble nature of the company, she and her successors have enjoyed the benefits of well-trained and highly motivated dancers.
The company's present Artistic Director is David McAllister who dances Camille de Rosillon in this recording.
Photo credit: John Meehan and Marilyn Rowe in The Merry Widow, by David Parker
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.