Fort Worth — If North Texas audiences weren’t aware of how lucky we are to have Ben Stevenson at the helm of the region’s top ballet company, then Texas Ballet Theater’s (TBT) ambitious spring program will surely enlighten us. The company is pushing itself to new heights with three premieres—two area and one world—in the coming months, reflecting a TBT-commissioned study that suggested it should move away from the nonstop revivals of the Big Ballets to keep up with trends in the performing arts world. These ballets include North Texas premiere of Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow this weekend; and then the area premiere of Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort and an as-yet-unnamed world premiere by Jonathan Watkins, both in the spring.
“I think it’s great that we are able to now bring in more exciting things into the repertoire. And I am excited about the next couple of seasons and what we are able to bring to the table,” says TBT Artistic Director Ben Stevenson.
First out of the gate is Hynd’s The Merry Widow, an emotionally complicated and luxuriously staged ballet set to the music of Franz Lehar’s operetta of the same name. The Merry Widow was first premiered by The Australian Ballet in 1975 and since then has been set on 16 companies worldwide. TBT can now add themselves to this prestigious list as they prepare to bring The Merry Widow to North Texas audiences Feb. 6-8 at Bass Performance Hall.
Born in London, Ronald Hynd trained with Marie Rambert and later made his performing debut with Ballet Rambert. In 1951 he joined the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now Royal Ballet) where he befriended Stevenson. Hynd choreographed his first ballet, The Fairy’s Kiss, in 1967 for the Dutch National Ballet. Now, semi-retired Hynd and his wife/assistant choreographer Annette Page only leave their home in the beautiful English countryside a couple times a year to set work on a few companies around the globe.
So, the fact Hynd is currently in Fort Worth rehearsing with the company speaks volumes of his rapport with Stevenson; a friendship that spans more than 60 years.
“We were in the Royal Ballet together and I have been closely following his rise as a choreographer,” Stevenson says. They have also worked together many times at Houston Ballet where the company performed The Merry Widow in 1995.
Hynd adds, “I usually don’t go to a company unless I know the standards and the quality, but I know and trust Ben so if he says the company can do it then I believe him.”
Stevenson was true to his word as Hynd only has positive things to say after seeing the company’s first run-through of his ballet. While he and Annette were expecting high-quality dancing they were pleasantly surprised by the dancers’ dexterity and quick reactions “These dancers can do anything. The boys lift wonderfully. Watching 13 boys lift the girls to the same height every time is quite impressive. They are also very responsive. Any suggestion you make they follow it exactly and remember it. It has really been quite a wonderful experience working with them.”
When it comes to starting a new ballet Hynd says he typically starts with the music and that informs everything else, but he says it was different with The Merry Widow. “I was invited to do it by The Australian Ballet and I had to adapt the operetta which has a lot of dialogue and not so much music into a visual dialogue. So, I made a very complicated and precise scenario which I then gave to John Lanchbery and he extended the music to fit my scenario. And once I got the music set then I could visualize the movement for it.” Add in exquisite costumes and scenery by Italian designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno and it’s no wonder The Merry Widow has been the jewel in many company’s repertoires for the last 40 years.
Set in Paris in 1905, The Merry Widow is a story about the fictitious Balkan state of Pontevedro and a beautiful and rich widow, Hanna Glawari. Not wanting Hanna’s fortune to fall into the wrong hands the dashing Count Danilo reluctantly plans to woo her at the embassy ball. The plot twist is that Hanna and Danilo were once young lovers. “It’s a story ballet with a lot of romance, humor and technical dancing,” Hynd says. “It also contains very emotionally complicated leading roles for four dancers. One person wants to marry a man who can’t commit to her; another girl is in love with a man, but she is a married women. So it is quite a complicated mix up of emotions, but it is all resolved happily naturally.”
While North Texas audiences many not be familiar with the ballet’s plotline they will recognize some of the music from the operetta composed by Franz Lehar. The score for the ballet was carefully arranged by John Lanchbery who Hynd considers one of the greatest ballet conductors of all times and with whom he and his wife had worked many times at the Royal Ballet. Audiences attending this weekend’s performance will be treated to live music provided by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, led by Michael Moricz.
And while it’s usually difficult for arts organizations to get people interested in a work they don’t know, Stevenson doesn’t think that’s the case with The Merry Widow. “It’s such a terrific work and we have the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra with us again and so I think it’s a piece well worth seeing.”
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com