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)
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!
You may be familiar with the saying that “Art is a reflection of society.”
Modern-day stories such as Disney’s Frozen raise comments about feminism, and McAllister’s ‘The Happy Prince,’ raise questions about social judgement and privilege, all of which are central social concerns of today’s society.
So, what cunning edge social beliefs did the Romantic ballet, “Giselle,” carry? You may believe that Giselle’s old, conservative period forces the ballet to avoid social commentary, but, Giselle is considered an artistic snapshot of the contemporary, modern societal beliefs of the nineteenth century.
Click below for a sypnopsis of Giselle by The Australian Ballet:
Benedicte Bemet. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet
Surprise! The 1840’s were not well-versed on feminism… The entire narrative of Giselle is based around the 1840’s understanding of female ‘hysteria,’ referring to uncontrollable emotion that was considered a mental illness linked to gender/the womb. Giselle is driven into hysterical madness over her broken heart.
Moreover, doctors of the time conducted strong research into the link between hysteria and sexuality, which may explain the link between Giselle’s overwhelming love for Albrecht, and her ‘hysterical’ mental state.
Sadly, it is safe to say Giselle encouraged the concept of a ‘hysterical female’ when first performed.
The High Value of Love
Benedicte Bemet and Cristiano Martino. Courtesy of The Australian Ballet
Romantic Ballets loves love.
Ballet, as well as many other Western pieces (Looking at you, Romeo and Juliet!) considered love to be of high enough value to make death acceptable and understandable.
Just look at when Giselle declares the extent of her love to Albrecht- when she realises it is unattainable, she dies. Moreover, when Albrecht is consumed by overwhelming heartache for Giselle, he realises a future with her is unattainable, so he risks his life in exchange for a few hours with Giselle.
Love is a fascination of many Western artists, and it is very clear that ‘love’ troupes are not unique to Romantic thinking.
Although seemingly different, Giselle and TheBachelor do share a strong worship of love!
Escape to the Countryside!
Benedicte Bemet. Photography by Kate Longley
If there’s one BIG thing to know about Giselle’s setting, it’ll be the fact we’re in the middle of a widespread European Industrial Revolution. As you may know, this marks the beginning of increased city living, however, many Romantics longed for ‘the good old days,’ where everyone lived in a natural rustic setting.
Just like today, entertainment created an escape from the troubles of daily life, which may be why we spend Act 1 in Giselle’s idealistic rural village. All productions of Giselle emphasise the quaint, simple charm of the village through rustic colours, using bright, sparkly dances to bring out a utopian nature.
It appears that Giselle may be calling for their society to return to a more natural, simple and authentic life, but judging by the closeness of the ‘Willis’ to the village, we doubt anyone is particularly inclined to ‘move in.’
The Supernatural Power of the Soul
Valerie Tereshchenko Photography by Lynette Wills
The Romantics also had a fascination with the supernatural power of the human soul, (Frankenstein, anyone?) which is why Giselle turns into a ghostly, tragic nightmare in Act II.
Act II of Giselle is characterised by supernatural mysteriousness, moonlit ethereal dances and strong swells in both emotion and music. Giselle’s real-life society had a focus on the relationship between the earthly and the ghostly, believing strongly in supernatural elements on earth.
Introducing the Willis, who indulge in their passion for dancing, and are spiteful in nature as they died unmarried, generally spiteful of men and mad in grief. Although dead, the soul still lives on, haunting the likes of Albrecht, Hilarion and other men who face them.
Some fun facts about Act II:
Andrew Killian & Amy Harris Photography by Jeff Busby
A prominent troupe in Romantic ballets was the ballet blanc, meaning a scene where the ballerina and all female corps de ballet dancers wear all white dresses and tutus. This was sparked by ‘La Sylphide,’ which is why both ballets have a “white act” in them.
Act II has evolved with technological advancements, using smoke machines, screens and stage lighting to achieve this supernatural element. However, the ballet wasn’t always as safe as it is now, as dancer Emma Livry discovered in 1863 when her white tutu caught fire on a gas light in a Giselle rehearsal.
Earlier this year FAB Member, Claire Bailey undertook the challenge of reading Anna Karenina in preparation for attending the now cancelled Sydney performances of Leo Tolstoy’s novel that became an epic ballet.
Many writers consider Anna Karenina the greatest work of literature ever. Tolstoy himself called it his first true novel. It is considered a complex book in eight parts, with more than a dozen major characters, spread over more than 800 pages!
The Friends of the Australian Ballet are deeply grateful and delighted to share this book review, prepared by avid reader and member of The Friends, Claire Bailey to entice and delight.
Anna Karenina – Book Review by Claire Bailey
Tolstoy’s tragic novel of Anna Karenina starts with the introduction of Anna’s relatives and their close friends. At first, I was confused as to why the author spent so much time on these other characters. However, as their stories progressed and entwined with Anna’s I grew attached to them and eager to see how their stories played out. Most compelling was the beautiful story of Levin. Levin is a sensitive character who battles self-confidence yet never truly gives up finding happiness.
When we are introduced to Anna we discover she is desperately unhappy in a loveless marriage and a life that does not reflect her true self. Her journey to find true love and happiness is brave and not without sacrifice with dire consequences. She soon finds herself torn between two choices: one that would lead her to a new life and the other closes the door on her past forever.
Perhaps the real heroine in the story is not Anna but her sister in-law Dolly. Dolly is a strong woman who has her own adversities. Dolly is instrumental in helping her family on their quest for love, happiness and finding inner peace.
Tolstoy’s story explores each character trying to find inner peace, and while some find it through love and forgiveness, others stories are far more tragic..
Have you recently read an inspiring book from the world of ballet? We welcome your feedback and reviews at email@example.com
Need a thing or two to read? Here are some of our favourite books about ballet!
A Body of Work
Written by David Hallberg
Published by Atria Books
Kicking off the list with The Australian Ballet’s future Artistic Director, David Hallberg’s A Body of Work was released in 2018. From a childhood marred by bullying, he grew to become the first American dancer to join the Bolshoi as a Principal Artist, before injury threatened his career a couple years ago. His fantastical tale is written here, and is a great way to meet our future Director!
Dancing Under the Southern Skies: A History of Ballet in Australia
Written by Valerie Lawson
Published by Australian Scholarly Publishing
How did the Australian Ballet come to be? A vivid illustration of influential figures and companies that have shaped Australia over the past 9 decades. From Company founder Peggy van Praagh, to beloved Soviet Ballerina troupes, this book beautifully details the foundations of Australian culture.
“Picture a ballerina in a tutu and toe shoes. What does she look like?”
Misty Copeland, the only African-American ballerina currently dancing with the American Ballet Theatre, has always defied expectations. Beginning ballet late at age 13 as an ‘undersized’ and ‘anxious’ girl, nobody guessed she’d become an international star. From her first auditions to her first stage debuts, watch how she keeps pushing the ballet world over their toes.
How does a poor, Tartar peasant end up in the most esteemed circles of London, Paris and New York? Nuryev’s dramatic defection from Russia created a press frenzy and a Cold-War crisis in 1961, yet he still restaged Russia’s sophisticated performances of Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet for the West to see.
The history of ballet told in all of its entirety, in the format it thrives in- a collection of impressive and rare photographs covering all key figures, pieces and performances, with intriguing facts about their reception and development. An essential story that engages with over 70 famous performances, it remains a timeless gift.
Behind the Scenes at the Ballet Russes – Stories from a Silver Age
Written by Michael Meylac
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Uncover the iconic, yet mysterious, Ballet Russes
The Ballets Russes was perhaps the most iconic, yet at the same time mysterious, ballet company of the twentieth century. Inspired by the unique vision of their founder Sergei Diaghilev, the company gained a large international following. In the mid-twentieth century – during the tumultuous years of World War II and the Cold War – the Ballets Russes companies kept the spirit and traditions of Russian ballet alive in the West, touring extensively in America, Europe and Australia. This important new book uncovers previously-unseen interviews and provides insights into the lives of the great figures of the age – from the dancers Anna Pavlova and Alicia Markova to the choreographers Leonide Massine, George Balanchine and Anton Dolin. The dancers’ own words reveal what life was really like for the stars of the Ballets Russes and provide fascinating new insights into one of the most vibrant and creative groups of artists of the modern age.
From acid attacks to bombs and communism, Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet has battled against their own reputation and survived for over 250 years of political and cultural upheaval. A defining Company for Russian art and ballet itself, Bolshoi Confidential is an educational and insightful history of one of the world’s leading ballet companies, and the many twists and turns to the top.
Swans for Relief have created a beautiful new video showing 32 premier ballerinas from 22 dance companies in 14 countires performing Le Cygne (The Swan) variation from Swan Lake. The 6 minute montage includes Australian dancers – in order of appearance – Stephanie Kurlow (Australia’s first Hijabi Ballerina), and Ako Kondo and Robyn Hendricks from The Australian Ballet.
Misty Copeland made history as the first African American Female Principal Dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. She is credited as saying dance is her ‘superpower’. New York based Misty has been using her star power to help uplift fellow dancers. She enlisted 31 of her ballerina friends to lace up their pointe shoes and raise money for coronavirus relief through her newly launched Swans for Relief. So far they have raised over $250,000.
Misty was recently interviewed on USA Today to discuss the Swans for Relief project. Watch the interview here.
For more info about Swans for Relief, or ways to donate, click here.
We recently featured A Ballerina’s Tale, the documentary about Misty Copeland’s journey through dance in our list of top Ballet films to binge in isolation. See the rest of the list here.