In 1969, towards the end of my dancing career with the Royal Ballet, I was persuaded – somewhat reluctantly – to create a piece for the Royal Ballet Choreographic Group. It was based on the Greek myth of Queen Pasiphae, who fell in love with a bull and conceived the minotaur – half man, half beast. It was set to a harsh, specially – commissioned score by the avant garde composer Douglas Young and was a dark and dramatic foray into the world of creating ballets.
By a quirk of fate, Pasiphae was seen by Sir Robert Helpmann, then co-director of The Australian Ballet who was impressed and said “you will be hearing from me”. I waited and waited and five years later he finally telephoned: “would you like to come to Australia and make a ballet based on the operetta of The Merry Widow? It will be the first full-length ballet ever created for my company”. I was both delighted and apprehensive: a frothy Parisian romance was a long way from Pasiphae cavorting with a bull!
A meeting with Helpmann in London with a few suggestions helped start the creative process and eventually the very complicated operetta story became a more simplified dance narrative, with the excision of numerous minor characters. I presented the full scenario to John Lanchbery, the great ballet conductor / composer / arranger and he wove this into the beautiful unsung arrangement we have today. In the days before the internet, enormous telephone bills were run up for the myriad artistic conversations between the creative partners. After working with the British Tony Award-winning designer Desmond Heeley who created the ravishing Belle Epoque designs, we had the sound and the look. After three months of rehearsal, The Merry Widow was now reborn as a ballet in Melbourne in 1975.
It was deemed a huge success and has since been performed by 19 major ballet companies across the globe.
The role of Hanna Glawari has been danced and cherished by almost all the great ballerinas of the past four decades. The glamourous widow provided a wonderful late flowering for Dame Margot Fonteyn, who danced the role in New York and London at the age of 57, her last great full-length ballet appearances.
It is above all, two parallel love stories, one encouraged, one illicit, a tale of patriotism for a struggling small Balkan nation, economics and misunderstandings. It would appear life has changed very little since the Widow first started waltzing in Vienna in 1905. In our rather brutal world, it gives me great pleasure to know that my romantic and nostalgic evocation of the Belle Epoque still has the capacity to charm and touch today’s modern audiences.
I am so thrilled to bring our Widow waltzing into Louisville. Another quirk of fate is that our director, the Australian Robert Curran, had during his years with The Australian Ballet progressed through almost every male role in the ballet, so I am particularly touched that his farewell performance was in the leading role of Danilo, the Widow’s true love.
We hope you enjoy travelling back in time to Paris, 1905.