Once upon a time, the people of the world looked to costumes as the dictators of fashion trends. It’s hard to believe that the extravagant gowns and accessories could be adapted in everyday life, however, in 1907, the fashion of “The Merry Widow” crossed into the mainstream consciousness.
Ever heard of a Merry Widow hat?
The operetta premiered on Broadway in 1907, in a time where women sported a tailored, hour-glass figure with a flowing skirt. However, the heroine, Hanna Glawari, contrasted the simplistic, natural look with a large, circular hat, covered in swathes of gauzy chiffon and white ostrich feathers.
If you are under the impression that this hat is a little bit extravagant, you may be interested to learn that it is fairly understated in comparison to the “trendy hats” it inspired.
There was no mistaking it- The Merry Widow created a cultural phenomenon of hat-wearing, with these hats becoming a symbol of wealth and class. The base widths of the hats varied, with most usually stretching to 45cm, however, there was no restrictions in the height of the hats. Although Ostrich feathers complemented the look nicely, the hats were also decorated with flowers, and sometimes sprinkled with a couple stuffed birds.
A parody post card of “The Merry Widow Hat” c.1908
The hats grew to be a sign of class and wealth.
Lily Elsie, the original Hanna, in a “Merry Widow Hat”
Hats aside, The Merry Widow and the composer, Franz Lehár, became a global phenomenon internationally, travelling from Austria to the UK, and even to Broadway in the US. Bearing in mind the difficultly in touring productions in the eras before air travel, it is quite remarkable how the show was able to migrate into various countries, languages and cultures, yet still leave a lasting cultural imprint. For example, it is believed that Lehár’s storyline in The Merry Widow sparked a new demand for Viennese Waltz Operas in the States over the next decade. Moreover, Lehár’s work also paved the way for a new wave of Viennese Operettas, which would centre two constantly battling lovers who would hide their feelings from the other, until, they reveal their attraction in the last scene.
It’s remarkable how this story has been continually shared over the last 100 years. The Australian Ballet’s most recent adaptation is a great spectacle of talent, colour and intricate design. However, once you learn of the quirky backstory of this ballet, so many small details in the costuming, such as the odd Ostrich feather here and there, are suddenly highlighted in your eye.
Hanna’s Famous Hat, Adam Bull and Amber Scott (Jeff Busby)
The Australian Ballet’s Amber Scott, who was part of the La Trobe’s online conversation
FRIENDS IN VIRTUAL CONVERSATION
JOINTS AND WELL-BEING
In recognition of your ongoing support of The Friends of The Australian Ballet we invite you to join us for a warm interactive conversation via Zoom.
Friends of The Australian Ballet Chair Greg Khoury and Friends sub-committee member, dancer and remedial therapist Gayle Wakeling-Taylor will explore some of the ideas recently shared by The Australian Ballet and La Trobe University into joint management and treatment.
Hello! My name is Cassie Parker and I’m a digital marketing intern with FAB. I consider myself a bit obsessive with ballet and theatre, and although any childhood hopes of becoming a ‘prima-ballerina’ are long-gone, it has been an absolute thrill to be involved with FAB over the past year.
At 4, I was slotted into the local ballet studio, “Miss McGirr’s School of Ballet,” where I continue to take classes today. Every dancer, no matter how long ago, remembers their first performance and cherishes their first costume/character. While many young ballerinas assume the role of a flower or a fairy, my earliest ballet memory was performing as a fish swimming below Captain Hook’s boat in Peter Pan. A fellow fishie fell over in front of me during the routine, but as the show must go on, I ran past my friend without missing a beat in my spring pointes.
Coppèlia holds a dear place in my heart, and I am forever grateful to my selfless grandmother who gave up her ticket for me in November 2016. To me, no other traditional ballet moves, both physically and emotionally, in the way that Coppèlia does. Although there is beautiful acting in Giselle, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, I have never been more immersed in the ballet than watching every character be (literally) animated in Coppèlia. Ako Kondo’s strong-willed Swanhilda was a character I had rarely seen on the classical stage, and the physicality within Dr Coppelius’ toy room still amazes me. There was a crash dummy in the room, which was strewn on a chair, folding his limbs such unnatural angles that I almost swore it was a stuffed doll (it wasn’t!).
However, the storyline of Dr Coppelius is tragically beautiful, and the complexity of his character being both an antagonist as well as the victim is a plot device that has left me thinking years after the curtain fell.
Another iconic aspect of the ballet is the music. Leo Delibes’ score retells the story as if it were a book – it’s hard to describe, but although it has been years since I last saw the stage performance, the score still brings me very close to the emotions of the storyline, immersing me in the animatronic amazement of the toy room, as well as the broken-hearted despair of Dr Coppelius.
It’s a very exciting time at the moment – my ballet classes have just started back, and my ballet school is setting up a few holiday classes to help regain some lost technique. I am very excited to stream Coppèlia on BalletTV, and I’m hoping to finally watch it with my Grandma from her home
Belle Urwin performing in Coppélia during The Australian Ballet’s 2019 Regional Tour, photo by Lynette Wills, courtesy of The Australian Ballet
With Coppélia taking centre stage on Ballet TV, we reached out to Belle Urwin, recipient of the 2019 FAB Australian Ballet School Scholarship and new member of The Australian Ballet company. Last year Belle was part of The Australian Ballet’s Regional Tour of Coppélia so we asked for her thoughts on all things Coppélia, touring with The Australian Ballet and what this year has been like for her so far.
Tell us a little about your experience of performing in Coppélia?
Coppélia was a ballet I had never performed before so it made this experience even more rewarding. I was lucky enough to be selected by both Lisa Pavane and David McAllister to take on the difficult role of the “Prayer” solo. Whilst in Albury, David McAllister visited to watch us perform and offered some useful tips and advice that he said helped Robyn Hendricks master those penches. I also enjoyed performing other roles such as “Hours”, “Mazurka” and “Spanish Doll”.
Do you have a favourite character or moment in Coppélia?
I particularly loved watching the wedding pas de deux performed by Swanilda and Franz in Act 2, as it was such a challenging pas de deux to execute, which they always made look easy. I also loved the “Doll scene” at the beginning of Act 2 where all the dolls come to life. It was always an entertaining scene that would get the audience laughing and even us dolls too! (Luckily we were wearing masks that covered our smiles)
What was touring regionally like with The Australian Ballet?
What I loved most about touring regionally was exploring these beautiful locations I would have never probably visited if not on tour. It was so gratifying to know that our presence in these small towns meant so much to these people and for me that made performing for them even more special.
I felt this tour was extremely well organised and I was always well prepared for what each location was like. Luckily I had prepared myself in terms of cooking my own meals previous to going on tour as a lot of people were forced to resort to 2 minute noodles!!
Where exactly did you go on the tour?
We started with a long drive to Griffith (NSW), then Wagga Wagga, Shepparton, Albury and Warragul (VIC). From there we flew to Tanunda and finished off in Mount Gambier (SA).
Do you have any favourite or funny moments from last year’s tour?
One of my favourite moments on tour was when one of my classmates was performing the role of the ‘Coppélia Doll’ in the opening scene. It was when she started performing her ‘doll-like’ movements that her headdress got stuck in the netting of the balcony and she couldn’t move! Thankfully Dr Coppelius came to the rescue and the show went on as it always does.
What are you currently focusing on or looking forward to in the world of ballet?
Putting current circumstances aside, I look forward to being welcomed into The Australian Ballet family and to further my relationships with my fellow colleagues and staff members. I am excited for what the future holds especially with the new director David Hallberg taking over next year. Being so fresh into the company I haven’t been able to form a connection with Mr Hallberg yet but look forward to working under his leadership and his strategy for the future direction of the company.
How have you found working from home during the COVID-19 period? What challenges have you faced and what have you enjoyed?
Due to Covid-19, I have spent my time isolating in Sydney with family. My two sisters returned from their studies in New Zealand to also isolate in Sydney, so what used to be a peaceful household of three quickly turned into a chaotic household of six! It was lovely to have the family back together again as it was the longest period of time I had been home since moving out at the age of 14.
I decided to isolate in Sydney mainly because of space issues I had back in Melbourne as I share an apartment with two other TAB dancers in a small apartment.
What I have struggled with during this time is not having the resources and equipment available to me to maintain the level of strength and fitness that I was at before lockdown. In addition to this, although TAB generously gave each dancer a square metre of tarkett, I have struggled to adapt to this change of working in a much smaller space.
On the bright side, The Australian Ballet have done an amazing job of keeping us all connected, especially us first years, ranging from phone calls twice a week to check in on our physical and mental wellbeing to online cooking classes where we have fun getting to know each other as well as learn how to cook delicious meals!
I look forward to finally working in the studios again and although it has been a very interesting start to my ballet career it is definitely one I will never forget!