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Flash Review 2, 6-20: Merrily Empty
A Widow's Feast from ABT

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2002 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- My sweet tooth ached watching American Ballet Theatre's lavish production of "The Merry Widow" at the Metropolitan Opera House last Thursday. Scenery dripped from the rafters, and the dancers were swaddled in a millefeuille of petticoats, tuxedoes, and millinery (sets and costumes by Desmond Heeley). The thin story seemed to be merely a good excuse for the stunning ballroom, country, and nightclub sets -- a visual feast, but of empty calories.

Ronald Hynd choreographed and Robert Helpmann produced the work on the Australian Ballet in 1975, with ABT first performing it in 1997. It offers some entertaining (and challenging) group dances, particularly for the men. Notably, Hynd inset some very difficult partnering sections for the leads, in this case, principals Julie Kent (Hanna) and Guillaume Graffin (Danilo), and soloists Xiomara Reyes (Valencienne) and Gennadi Saveliev (Camille).

The story revolves around the serendipity of love and its persistence even with the passage of time. It is based on the original book by Victor Leon and Leo Stein, set to music with plenty of bouncy waltzes by Franz Lehar. Kent was perfectly suited to the role of Hanna, moving in a flash from aloof widow to flirtatious lover. Hynd added some whimsical gestures for Hanna, such as aggressively pointing an extended flexed foot at the end of a slow developpe, and reflexively lifting one foot in an embrace. Graffin made for a handsome, sturdy partner. Although he seemed to be somewhat shaky in his balance, his powerful legs provided an strong foundation for sheer power lifts of Kent. Together, they had a larger-than-life presence, an advantage in front of the extremely busy, patterned background.

In contrast, Reyes is small and effervescent, and when Graffin lifted her, she looked as light as a feather. She was partnered primarily by Saveliev, who was recently promoted to soloist, and they made a smart pair. They executed with panache a difficult partnering passage in which Reyes, carried by Saveliev, moved repeatedly from his knee level to over his head. Saveliev was perhaps a bit nervous, but he maintained his composure and with experience, should gain in stage presence.

The dazzling third act, set at Maxim's, featured can-can dancers and tuxedoed waiters who performed fast, fussy steps. Maitre d' Carlos Lopez led the group; Lopez also performed with elan the role of leading Pontevedrian dancer. A complex section involving the two lead couples in a quartet (really a duet for two duos) required the women to maintain contact with one another in lifts, and for all four to perform turns in opposite directions while in close proximity, creating visual tension. In the final scene, Danilo surprises Hanna by bringing her cloak. Familiarly comfortable with one another, they glided about to the theme waltz. Charles Barker conducted the musical adaptation by John Lanchbery.

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