A Giddy Delight: The Australian Ballet recalls la Belle Époque in The Merry Widow

Recently landed: A Giddy Delight, Gracia's written response to The Australian Ballet's The Merry Widow, for Fjord Review

At the Paris Universal Exhibition at the turn of the twentieth century, where it was said Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music, near everything newly-discovered or newly-made could be found. The Eiffel Tower, now synonymous with Paris, for one; the world-encompassing scale of the Galerie des machines where visitors could delight in discovering atmospheric hammers, cigarette makers, phonographs, and telephones, another. Add to this a colonial exhibition of the ‘other’ from across land and sea masses; the Imperial, the largest diamond in the world; and a giant wooden and stucco elephant, which was later purchased and placed alongside an infamous red windmill, the Moulin Rouge, to render complete the Jardin de Paris Elephant. For a franc, a gentleman could enter the elephant’s body, by way of a staircase twisting up one of its legs, and find themselves in an opium den and a froth of belly dancers.    

Paris: the city of entertainment. “Paris was where the twentieth century was…. Paris was the place to be,” said Gertrude Stein of that beautiful era, la Belle Époque. Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, and Degas. Bonnard, Cézanne, and Monet. Well may I cry, pour me another cocktail of Post-Impressionism, Les Nabis, and ornamental Art Nouveau, but what of all this and a widow, merry or otherwise? This doorway to the past was, for me, what coloured and illuminated
The Merry Widow. It was the backdrop to the foreground and the foreground to the backdrop, the very balance of the composition, the lightness of step, its undeterred waltzing heart. The elephant in the garden: frivolity and amusement.    

From the palette of the Fauvist “wild beasts”, Matisse et al., to that found inside the belly of the beast, colour radiated mood, and it needn’t be true to the natural world. The emotional state was the heat rubbed into the canvas, into life, and on the stage in Robert Helpmann’s
The Merry Widow, originally created for The Australian Ballet in 1975, and felt last night at the State Theatre from a seat in the stalls. Colour as a vehicle for describing the lustre and space of the city of light, itself. Colour to describe high and low art brushing shoulders.

Adam Bull and Kirsty Martin in The Merry Widow (image credit: Jeff Busby)