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Flash Review 2, 4-4: Merrily We Roll Over History
ABT's 'Widow' Merry, but She Doesn't Bite

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2001 Tara Zahra

DETROIT -- It's a rare moment when my identity as dance writer and my identity as History graduate student collide, so I was especially looking forward to American Ballet Theatre's "Merry Widow" Friday at the Detroit Opera House. "The Merry Widow," adapted into a ballet by Roland Hynd from the opera by Franz Lehar, may actually be the only ballet set in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which once comprised almost all of East Central Europe, and collapsed after World War I. The opera was originally a scathing satire of the monarchy's political world -- above all its decadent aristocracy, financial woes, and nationalist squabbles (between more than ten different national groups).

One of the lessons of the evening, then, was how difficult it is to convey the political issues of 1906 to an audience in 2001, above all within the strictures of classical ballet. Who in the audience would know or care about the bloody nationalist strife in 1906 Vienna, except a history student deconstructing the program notes? The disappointment is that stripped of this political and historically specific meaning, a ballet like "The Merry Widow" is too easily transformed into "Sleeping Beauty II," a traditional melodrama about aristocrats and royalty and who they marry, and charming and exotic peasants and courtesans, who perform quaint national dances wearing red leather boots, and fret about these marriages. History becomes an excuse to build lavish sets and design breathtaking costumes, and ceases being an opportunity to say something about the world.

The sets were lavish, and the costumes were gorgeous. Desmond Heeley outdid himself in evoking turn-of-the-20th-century Paris and Pontevideo (the fictional Balkan province that stands in for the Austrian Empire), especially in his design of the women's costumes. Long but airy Victorian gowns teased you with only the briefest glimpses of the dancer's legs. In a true Victorian spirit, this meant that the occasional appearance of Susan Jaffe's or Ashley Tuttle's knees as they turned was practically an erotic experience. Especially the third act, set in Maxim's in Paris, offered abundant eye-candy, in the form of French fashion and can-can dancers (or at least our fantasies of French fashion and can-can dancers). But did they have to cast the only black dancer on stage as the waiter?

The dancing reached its high point in Act 2, when Ashley Tuttle, as Valencienne (the wife of the Pontevidrian ambassador to France), and Angel Corella (as a French attache), managed to capture all of the passion and awkwardness of middle-aged adultery. Their pas de deux ( in fact their interactions throughout the ballet) added a necessary light touch to the evening and convincingly evoked all the playfulness and excitement of a forbidden love. I was almost happier to see the two of them together at the ballet's inevitable Happy End than I was to see the real protagonists finally united. Jaffe was nonetheless equally stunning as the Widow herself, proving herself an incredibly capable actress as she embraced, rejected, tested, and then finally reembraced her true love (conveniently enough, saving the Monarchy from financial ruin in the process).

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