“The Merry Widow” is about the basic things in life, says choreographer Ronald Hynd: “Sex, money, commitment, and love. They don’t have to go in that order. That was rather crass, the order I put it.”
English native Hynd, who turns 80 this spring, is nowhere near crass. He is direct and opinionated as he discusses the full-length ballet he created in 1975 for the Australian Ballet, which he, his wife Annette Page, and the original production’s Danilo, John Meehan, have now set on the Joffrey.
Hynd’s 35-year-old ballet tells a highly theatrical story wordlessly, though hardly silently. His task was huge: to make the Byzantine plot of Franz Lehar’s 1905 comic operetta—in which two couples negotiate a dizzying series of obstacles and misunderstandings—perfectly clear.
“The challenges, always, come with making the story visible,” says Hynd. “Because there are acres of dialogue in the operetta. Obviously that’s all gone. But you’ve got to condense that right down to the minimum, and choose movements that can express words. I want people to see the words. We have a lot of buffo scenes, and a lot of scenes advancing the story and expressing the drama. That’s a good challenge for the dancers, to come with me on that.” He pulls at his earlobes. “What are these? Earrings. They have to be really clear with those. This one you’ll get…” He slaps his palm, then his hand wafts up. I don’t get it. “What’s the most important thing for any ballet company? Money!”
Does Hynd have any favorite parts in the ballet? “Every single step is precious—that’s an internal joke,” he laughs. “Naturally there are things that are the heart, like the pas de deux. They are the emotional heart of the ballet. But I like the variety. I like the elegance of the ballroom, the big sweep of the Lehar waltzes—you can’t beat them. And in the second act, we have some really butch men’s stuff, the Pontevedrian stuff.” Though the ballet is set in Paris, it focuses on the upper-crust citizens of an impoverished fictional country, Pontevedro. Its supposed folk dances embellish act two. “The boys are going to be fabulous!” Hynd crows.
“And Lehar’s music … if you’re not going to respond to Lehar’s music, don’t come,” says Hynd. “It’s exquisite, and wonderfully arranged by John Lanchbery [then the musical director of the Australian Ballet], who was a genius at adapting works and putting them into a balletic medium. He was also a great ballet conductor—he knew everything about dance, what is needed.”
On the subject of music for dance, Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater chimes in, “There are very few that are able to understand a choreographer’s way of telling a story—and musically, how do you weave that together to make it satisfying?”
Wheater adds an enthusiastic word of praise for Hynd: “In the studio, Ronnie is fantastic! It’s a hard ballet for everybody—there’s a lot of dancing. For most full-lengths you have your principal couple, and a divertissement here and there, and you have your corps de ballet. What I like about ‘Merry Widow’ is that it involves the entire company. And everyone is as important as the principals. The dancers are there for each other—there’s a great sense of camaraderie.”
PHOTO (ABOVE) by Herbert Migdoll.